Sen­sory pro­cess­ing

Could a sen­sory pro­cess­ing dis­or­der be caus­ing your tod­dler’s melt­downs?

Your Baby & Toddler - - Must Reads - BY MEG FAURE, OC­CU­PA­TIONAL THER­A­PIST

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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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