Noticing and Treating Sensory Processing Problems in the Early Years

By Jessica Fox, LCPC

color painted child hand

In my last blog, I referred to my baby and the joys and challenges of raising her to be confident. I discussed how confidence is greatly related to the ability to self-soothe and cope with anxiety, even at an early age.

Now, my blond-haired, blue-eyed darling is well into her toddler years, and while she is confident, she is also exhibiting some traits that I want to help her strengthen. I am by no means an occupational therapist, nor do I have much training in sensory processing disorder. But, I believe it to be under-diagnosed or at least the symptoms under treated.

I am not jumping the gun and diagnosing my two-year old, either. I simply am attuned to noticing symptoms like this, and if I can help her in these early years, well, you better believe I’m going to try. Sensory Processing Disorder can affect people either in one sensory modality–for example, just touch, sight, or just movement–or in multiple senses. One person with SPD may over-respond to sensation and find clothing, physical contact, light, sound, food, or other sensory input to be unbearable. Another might under-respond and show little or no reaction to stimulation, even pain or extreme hot and cold.

In children whose sensory processing of messages from the muscles and joints is impaired, posture and motor skills can be affected. These are the “floppy babies” who worry new parents and the kids who get called “klutz” and “spaz” on the playground. Still other children exhibit an appetite for sensation that is in perpetual overdrive. These kids often are misdiagnosed – and inappropriately medicated – for ADHD (

My daughter seems affected by certain materials on her skin. About a year ago she started complaining about “tags”; she would get upset if her leggings went over her heel too much, and it is quite a challenge just to get her dressed. We have concluded that she would be happiest living in a nudist colony. My daughter also refuses pony-tails or any other hair accessory. The second her hands get dirty she wants a napkin. The most recent material that she just refuses to allow is swim floaties. I couldn’t even have it on her arm for one second before she started melting down and tried to rip it off. Side note: I also realize that this is normal for many young kids, but I couldn’t help notice the dozens of kids her age at the pool floating happily in their floaties with no complaint. It’s not that she is afraid of the water; in fact, she loves it and wanted me to let go of her in 4 feet.

So, what am I to do? I don’t want to scar my daughter and create a bigger problem, nor make a problem if one does not exist. My solution is to start very, very small. I didn’t want to torture my child, but I want her to be able to sit through the discomfort that some materials bring to an extent. I began awhile back with the tags. I stopped cutting them all out; only the ones that I see were actually really big and uncomfortable. I had her feel the tags, and showed her the tags in my clothes. I assured her that the ones we left in were OK and wouldn’t bother her TOO much. This seemed to work.

Next, we worked on dirty hands. I stopped wasting paper towels to wash her hands in the middle of a meal or art project. I simply soothed her and told her it was ok to be dirty and that they could stay dirty until she was done eating or finished with her art project. I also introduced new materials into her life that she could get on her hands. My shower became an art canvas. We sprayed shaving cream on the walls and ran our hands through it. We got washable finger paint and painted the walls of the shower. I tried to let her get comfortable with a mess, and it worked very well.

Next, I moved on to the ponytail. Now, let me be clear, my want for my daughter to wear hair accessories has nothing to do with fashion. She really isn’t a “bow girl” anyways. I just want her to be able to feel ok with her hair pulled back. It’s long and constantly in her face.   We made a rule. She can have her hair down at home, at friend’s homes, at school, and when we are running errands. But, if she is at gymnastics or the park, or somewhere else where she really needs to be able to see well, it has to go back out of her face. She sometimes gives me a hard time, but I remind her of the safety reasons and that she can take it out as soon as the physical activity is over. She takes me up on it.

While it seems silly to be negotiating with my toddler, it has helped her navigate through some of her sensory challenges. I also choose my battles, because let’s face it, would you really want to walk around with one pant leg tucked under your heel?

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