Commonly overlooked sensory symptoms and signs of sensory issues that could be a clue to your child’s needs, which will decrease confusion and frustration.
This thing happens to me all the time as a pediatric OT… I’m talking to parents during a party, a play-date, or even in line at the grocery store, and the parent casually mentions, often in passing, an odd thing that their child does. Maybe their child walks around on their toes all the time, gags at some foods, or hates being messy? Sometimes, they aren’t even that concerned about this odd “thing”. Often times, I know this “thing” their child is doing is a sensory symptom or sign of a sensory issue (which isn’t as bad as it sounds!)
Sensory processing can be very complicated and the truth is many parents have never heard about it. Some realize their child may have some sensory issues that sometimes cause odd, confusing, or frustrating behaviors.
When I find myself in these situations, I usually feel a bit stuck because sensory isn’t exactly a quick topic, especially for parents who’ve never even heard about it. If you’ve found your way here, my bet is that you know at least a little something about sensory, but if not, that is okay, too. Either way, I have an exciting solution to that problem, but before I get to that, let’s talk more about these sensory symptoms, or as like to call them, sensory red flags.
What are Sensory “Symptoms” (aka Red Flags)?
A sensory symptom, or sign of a sensory issue, is anything your child does that indicates their sensory system needs more sensory input or less. That need happens because of the way their unique brain is “thinking” about the sensory input it’s receiving.
Hopefully that didn’t confuse more! Let me give you a REALLY simple example. My son loves to jump on the furniture, this is a sensory symptom for him because I can see that he is trying to get more sensory input when he’s doing that.
I wanted to write about a few of the most overlooked sensory behaviors or red flags, so that you can begin seeing why your child does seemingly odd or unusual things.
Understanding why your child is waving a sensory red flag, or displaying signs of sensory issues, will help you help them! But before you even do that, you need to know what the heck this sensory thing is all about anyways? Because I know, that as I sit and write this, many of you are feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. It’s a reaction that I’ve seen too many times to count, and, to be honest, it gets my anxiety going up because I want to help you! I know the solution to that frustration and overwhelming feeling.
*Learn 3 secrets about using sensory activities to calm and focus kids in this free workshop, we’ll give you an awesome digital workbook and checklist too!
10 Sensory Symptoms and Red Flags
Before we dive into these behaviors, I want to make it VERY clear that just because your child may have one or several of these red flags, it doesn’t mean that they have sensory problems, autism, or any other diagnosis. We ALL have sensory processing needs and differences. Seeing your child’s behavior through the sensory lens will allow you to understand them and support their needs, which means less confusion and frustration for everybody!
And, if you’re concerned that your child’s sensory issues need addressed by a professional, then check out sensory integration therapy. You’ll find a guide to walk you through figuring that all out so you have peace of mind! If you are concerned your child has autism, or already know they do, check out the link between autism and sensory processing.
1. Avoids Movement – If your child gets scared at climbing playground equipment, roughhousing, or riding a swing, they are likely avoiding vestibular and possibly proprioceptive input. Those are our sixth and seventh senses that give us our sense of balance and body awareness.
2. Gagging at the Sight, Taste, and Smell of Foods – Although not always sensory, gagging immediately when confronted with foods is often because the oral system is being overwhelmed. Read more about sensory issues with food.
3. Frequently Walking on Toes – Children often do this because they are sensitive to the sensations they are feeling on their feet and prefer as little of their foot to be touching the surface as possible. Sometime children toe-walk because they like the pressure it puts on their ankle, which is more proprioceptive feedback. Or, it can also be the result of a vestibular system that isn’t processing properly, read more about that here.
4. Clumsy – There are a variety of reasons that a child may seem to fall or bump into objects more than other children, and one of the most overlooked reasons is because the child’s proprioception and possibly vestibular systems aren’t working too well.
5. Hides at Parties or Avoids Them – If your child hates going to parties or other public places, it is possible that they may be overstimulated by the noise, lights, and/or people accidentally touching them. For kids that have this response due to a sensory processing difficulty, a party can be downright torture as the sounds, sights, and unexpected touches can just be painful to them, literally. Head to sensory sensitivity in kids to learn more.
6. Prefers Tight Clothing – Sometimes kids will want to layer clothes or wear really tight fitting clothing to give themselves more proprioceptive input. It may seem strange, but the sensation they receive is calming to them and may even help them focus better. Or, your child may be extremely particluar about some sort of fabric. This all relates back to sensory. Head over to sensory issues with clothing to learn more.
7. Wild Child– There are a variety of reasons that kids seem to bounce off the walls at times, but kids that always seem to be jumping, climbing, running, pushing, and roughhousing are typically seeking out proprioceptive input, and sometimes vestibular as well. Unfortunately, these kids are often described as “bad” or wild, but really, they are just trying to get their needs met. Click here to read more about sensory strategies for wild kids, and a three part plan for “dealing with” hyperactive kids.
8. Likes Bright, Fast Paced TV Shows – I know a lot of kids like these types of shows, but if your child only wants to watch fast, bright shows, then it may be an indication that they want more visual stimulation. If that is the case, your child may also like looking at lights and brightly colored or high contrast books.
9. Bites Toys or People When Unprovoked – If your child seems to bite others or their toys often, usually for no reason, they are probably looking for some deep, intense proprioceptive input.
10. Doesn’t seem to notice when being talked to or needs directions repeated – Yes, sometimes kids ignore, and sometimes this is normal, but if it is a frequent recurring issue than it is a sign that your child’s auditory or hearing system is not processing information well.
Does Your Child Have Sensory Symptoms?
All of these behaviors are like a red flag that your child is waving to tell you something about their sensory processing. It is a clue into what they need from a sensory standpoint (click here to read about understanding your sensory kid). That need may be help avoiding something like bright lights or seeking something like chewing on toys.
To start figuring out what types of sensory activities might be helpful for your child, follow these steps:
- Learn what a sensory diet is and why it can be the simple tool that changes everything.
- Find a treasure trove of sensory diet activities
- Consider if proprioceptive activities will help calm, focus, or alert your child.
- Use this sensory diet template to put a plan into place for your child.
Get the 21 Sensory Red Flags Printable Checklist
You won’t want to miss this, I combined all of the sensory red flags listed here and 11 more from part two of this post, aptly named: 11 Sensory Red Flags. You’ll want to check that post out, too, for all the details on those red flags, but make sure you snag your free sensory red flag checklist right here!
More on Kids Sensory Red Flags
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.