Could a sensory processing disorder be causing your toddler’s meltdowns?
When it’s more than a meltdown
Being a toddler is all about learning, taking in the world around you and converting these experiences into knowledge. In the first three years of life a child takes in a phenomenal amount of sensory data that her developing brain processes and interprets. This results in her development, intelligence and positive play skills.
But while play and stimulation are vital for development, it‘s not always a case of the more, the better. In fact, too much stimulation can result in sensory overload and distress for your child.
FILTERING THE CHAOS
The human brain is a wonderful thing. It governs movements, gives intent to actions, learns language and develops intelligence, helping to make sense of the world. However, this amazing system can also make the world seem completely disorganised and overwhelming. The reason for this has to do with the filters that govern how much sensory input we take in at one time.
Your child’s senses are taking in sensory input during all her waking moments, and to a lesser degree while she sleeps. The cacophony of sounds, touches, smells and visual input would be too much to make sense of if the brain consciously perceived it all. For this reason, the brain has a natural filter that habituates and blocks out sensory input that isn’t necessary. Our amazing brains filter all irrelevant information, preventing us from becoming overloaded with too much stimulation. This habituation occurs without us knowing and prevents sensory overload.
An example of habituation occurs when you are at a toddler’s busy birthday party – you are able to filter all the noise from the various toddlers out so that you can focus on a conversation with a friend. But if your little one (whose voice you are attuned to) yells out in pain, your brain actions you to respond immediately to your child.
OVERLOAD HAPPENS TO US ALL
Of course there are times in our day and certain situations where habituating sensory input is just not possible. Attend a baby expo with a toddler in tow and before the end of the outing, you are bound to be fractious and feel overloaded by all the sensory input. For your toddler it is even more overwhelming. A tantrum induced by sensory overload could be expected after such a stimulating outing – and this would be considered a normal response to too much sensory input.
By making sure your baby sleeps regularly and keeping her from being overstimulated from a young age you can prevent sensory overload. However, for some children, even with the best intentions, overstimulation is a regular and very distressing experience. These children are often diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD).
SENSORY PROCESSING DISORDER 101
We know that each person has a different sensory filter, unique to his or her brain. Some toddlers are just more sensitive to sensory input than others. They may also be more sensitive to specific sensory input, such as sound, light, smell, taste or touch input. When sensory input is not habituated and filtered, and your toddler’s brain decides that this innocent input is threatening, the world
feels dangerous to her. This results in levels of sensory overload that make all interactions difficult and overwhelming.
For these little ones, touches and sounds that are really not dangerous are perceived as a huge threat to their brains and result in their having a flight-orfight response:
FLIGHT (AVOIDING SENSORY EXPERIENCES) Your toddler withdraws from and avoids social situations or runs away when you want to dress him, for example. FIGHT (ATTACKING OTHERS OR YOU) A toddler who bites others consistently or hits out at you when you try to change his nappy. FRIGHT (SHOUTING AND
SCREAMING) in response to an unexpected dog bark or touch from behind.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Managing a child with sensory overload takes understanding and insight on your part. First, understand your baby’s behaviour in the context of overstimulation and try to help her to engage or play in calmer settings for shorter periods with more down time.
If your child’s sensory sensitivity is affecting her function – for example, you find that she has no friends, or you can never drive in the car, or she is aggressive and moody all the time – seek the advice of an occupational therapist specialised in sensory integration who will give you what’s called a sensory diet to help your little one cope better with sensory input.
Coping with a child with SPD is a tough challenge. Knowledge, empathy and advice from a qualified professional is the best way to create an environment in which your little one can engage, learn and make sense of her world.
BY MAKING SURE YOUR BABY SLEEPS REGULARLY AND KEEPING HER FROM BEING OVERSTIMULATED FROM A YOUNG AGE YOU CAN PREVENT SENSORY OVERLOAD