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What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

None of these behaviors are typically problematic on their own, but they can become worrisome if you notice that they’re beginning to affect your child’s daily life. Many kids like swinging, for instance, but if your child must go to the backyard to swing for an hour before she is calm enough to go to bed, and it’s disrupting your household routine, you should bring it up with your child’s pediatrician at your next visit.

Children who crave specific kinds of touch might want to wear seemingly inappropriate clothing, such as heavy boots or a tight skull cap in the summer. Kristina, mom of 2-year-old Zachary in Victoria, Tex., said that her son loves to wear many layers of clothing. “His record is 21 socks on one foot,” Kristina said. (The parents I spoke with preferred to not be identified by their last names because of privacy concerns.) Zachary does not have many words yet, but he uses “Ouch!” to describe anything that makes him feel out of sync. His mom thinks this is his way of telling adults that what they are doing is not working for his needs.

When Zachary craves certain sensations, Kristina said that she dresses him in snug or layered clothing, or provides other opportunities for him to get those same feelings his body is seeking. This could mean giving him tight hugs or letting him snuggle under a weighted blanket. Other families use weighted vests or compression clothing. If children worry about what their friends might think of their clothing, Fleming noted that weights can be sewn into the lining of a regular zip-up hoodie to give a child the same effect.

Kids can also be overresponsive, or hypersensitive, to sensory input. They are often called “avoiders.” Many youngsters, for example, eat a limited diet. This is common, and is not necessarily indicative of the child’s becoming a picky adult nor always indicative of S.P.D. It can become problematic, however, if they gag or vomit when encountering a new food, or if they throw a fit when you offer them a different brand of a favorite food. Many children with food-related S.P.D. go on to develop anxiety around food and eat extremely limited diets, often limited to specific textures. Many kids with sensory issues avoid pureed foods such as applesauce, while others cannot tolerate crunchy foods at all. It is not uncommon for a child with S.P.D. to eat the same few foods every day.

Karl, a 6-year-old in Pittsburgh, for instance, ate only four things until he was 4: plain yogurt, milk, crackers and cheese. He has expanded his palate slightly to include pancakes and even fried shrimp. But seeing or smelling a food he cannot tolerate, such as ranch dressing or oatmeal, can cause him to vomit. This makes going to parties or even walking through the food court at the mall difficult. Opal, one of Karl’s parents, has found that the best strategy for Karl is to give him bodily autonomy. “Our kids have control of what they put into their bodies, and if that means they eat crackers and nothing else for a week, that’s O.K.,” Opal said. Karl’s parents have found that if they just leave food out on the table, or eat it themselves in front of him without any pressure, he will sometimes choose to taste it.

These sensitivities can go beyond taste.

Young kids often don’t like loud sounds, such as fireworks, but children who are hyperresponsive to sounds might struggle or shut down in even moderately noisy environments, such as a classroom. “I feel like my ears want to jump off my head and go run away,” said Milo, a 6-year-old in Berkeley, Calif., who struggles with auditory processing related to his S.P.D. Parents often use noise-canceling headphones as a tool to soothe children with sensitivity to noises. Wearing the headphones in a noisy cafeteria, for instance, can allow such a child to eat lunch with his peers.

Many children want tags cut out of clothing, but a child with a hyperresponsive sense of touch might endlessly balk at the feel and texture of clothing. He might limit himself to a few outfits, or battle over which socks are tolerable each morning. Clothing lines are now emerging for children with sensory difficulties, such as the new Cat and Jack products at Target, which have no tags, softer seams and other adaptations to make them less obtrusive to children who struggle with sensory issues.

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