Meltdown at the State Fair? Misbehavior or Sensory Processing Disorder?

We’ve all seen it and heard it. You’re at an outdoor festival or an amusement park, loving all the lights and people, the sounds of the rides and the live bands, and the smells of all that food!

Then suddenly, piercing through your summer fun comes the shrieks of a screaming kid. You turn to look, potentially annoyed, and see the frantic parents trying to calm the child down. Too much sugar, you might think, or “nap time!” if the kid is young.

What you could be seeing is someone with a sensory processing disorder (SPD).

Sensory processing disorder can be linked to autism or to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or it could be a stand-alone issue. While we don’t have specific numbers for SPD only, according to the CDC, “about 1 in 6 (17%) children aged 3–17 years were diagnosed with a developmental disability, as reported by parents, during a study period of 2009-2017. These included autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, blindness, and cerebral palsy, among others.”

How can you distinguish between “acting out” or sensory issues (keeping in mind that SPD shows up differently for each person).

If your child:

  • Constantly moves or easily gets tired; might jump, swing or spin much more than other kids, but yet be uncomfortable with other types of movement, like swinging, sliding or going up/down ramps.
  • Moves away when touched.
  • Won’t eat certain kinds of food because of its texture.
  • Is extremely sensitive to smell and sound.

While those might make sense they all relate to the five senses other signs might not be as obvious. Your child may:

  • Have a hard time calming themselves down.
  • Might seem clumsy or have unusual posture.
  • Struggle with small things that require fine motor coordination, like buttons or snaps.
  • Happily play with the same toys in the same way, or watch the same movie over and over again.

That’s because sensory processing goes beyond the five senses we most commonly think of. We actually have eight senses. The three additional ones are:

  • Vestibular (head movements)
  • Proprioception (muscles and joint movement)
  • Interoception (internal bodily sensations such as hunger, thirst, or feeling cold)

How to Help a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder

For long-term support, you’ll want to get professional help from a therapist. The type of therapist can vary, depending on your situation. If your child also has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may need a behavioral and mental health therapist who understands autism, like our team at Franklin Therapy.

If your child has ADHD, again, you probably need a therapist with expertise in that condition as well as SPD (we can help with ADHD too!). 

How do you know where to start? We always recommend talking to your pediatrician but know that SPD is a recent diagnosis, and not all physicians or therapists understand it in the same way. If you’re not getting the referrals you need, reach out to us at Franklin Therapy.

Four Tips For Daily Calm for Sensory Sensitive Kids

We know parents need help each day, so here are some general guidelines that can help.

“Our top advice for parents is to read the signals their child is sending,” said Katie Thormodsgaard, director of Franklin Therapy. “We have strategies to help with sensory processing, but it’s not something the child can change on their own. They can’t decide to ignore loud noises, for example. It’s not a case of overcoming a fear, like roller coasters. Notice what triggers them and see if you can remove it or reduce the stimulation.”

Protect the five senses: Everyone is different, but in general, look for anything that could irritate your child’s five senses. This could mean choosing tagless clothing, softer sheets, or avoiding certain scents or foods. When they say, “I don’t like this,” or you notice a negative reaction, try to remove the irritant.

Provide a safe space: If you have space at home, create a corner where your child can retreat from any stimulation. It could be a corner in their room, or even under a desk or table. Let them fill the space with soft objects like pillows, stuffed animals, and fidget toys.

Be predictable: Routines help; surprises are tough! Keep a visual calendar where they can see it, and encourage them to be part of the schedule. Verbally prepare them ahead of time for any changes, like the end of school, or a summer vacation. Social stories are another useful tool, providing a visual narrative to illustrate potential social situations and ways they can respond.

Look for sensory-friendly events and places: Whether it’s the holidays or summer, of course, you want to: go to eventsblank and experience new things or favorite things as a family. Look for events and spaces labeled “sensory-friendly,” like our Calmapalooza event in early September or events at the Science Museum of Minnesota, Como Park, and AMC movie theaters. Check out this link for additional sensory-friendly experiences in the Twin Cities!

“We deliberately created this for the families who attend Franklin Center,” said Thormodsgaard. “We wanted to capture all the summer fun of music and games and entertainment, but make it accessible, instead of overwhelming.”

In addition to Franklin Therapy experts, sources include the CDC and the University of Michigan.