Tantrum or Red Flag? Understanding Sensory Processing Issues

Tantrum or Red Flag? Understanding Sensory Processing Issues

Throughout the day our bodies process our senses — from the feeling of water during a shower to the loud noise of a fire truck passing by. Most people are able to naturally regulate their senses, but for kids who have sensory processing problems, certain types of stimulation, also called input, can negatively impact the way they’re able to participate in life.

In children, sensory processing issues typically arise around preschool age when children are going through developmental phases or are exposed to a new environment, such as a classroom. However, some parents may notice sensory related behaviors during the toddler or kindergarten years.

If your child is having frequent meltdowns, tantrums or extreme emotions regarding some day-to-day activities, it could be a red flag for a sensory issue.

“I think a lot of times sensory processing issues can get labeled as behavior problems, so I think sometimes kids who are prone to tantrums, you might just think it’s a phase,” says Claire Heffron, pediatric occupational therapist at The Inspired Treehouse in Bedford. “Behaviors can be labeled as negative behaviors but may be linked to some sensory processing preferences.”  

Sensory red flags commonly are noticed through odd behaviors or reactions that your child has to certain sensory inputs. Some children are sensory “seekers,” and need more input while some are “avoiders,” and need less input.  

“You can have children at either end of the spectrum,” explains Sarah Rintamaki, executive director of Connecting for Kids in Westlake. “You can have children who are seeking more sensory input so they’re constantly putting things in their mouths, crashing into things, seeking all of that input. Then you have the kids who are avoiding it. They don’t want to go to a party because it’s loud; or you have the kid who is the world’s pickiest eater and will not put food in their mouth; or the one who freaks out when the fire truck goes by.”  

A lot of people associate sensory issues with autism, but that’s not always the case.

“It’s true that most children with autism have a sensory processing concern, but so many other kids also have sensory processing concerns who don’t have the other characteristics of autism,” Rintamaki says.

Take Note

If you think your child is struggling with some of the red flags, one of the best things to do is to track the behavior until you can meet with your pediatrician.

“Always write down exactly what happened with every meltdown or behavior disruption that you’ve seen,” Rintamaki says. “It gives data to the professional that you’re working with and so much more clarity.”

Also note how extreme the behavior becomes.  

“How is it really impacting their ability to go out in public, be around family and friends, their ability to go to school and participate with their peers?” Heffron adds.

Once you chat with your pediatrician, you may be referred to a pediatric occupational therapist for further screening and therapy techniques.

“The therapy can help a child to integrate the information from their senses better and therefore have more attention and focus in the classroom,” Rintamaki adds.

Common Sensory Red Flags

  • Picky eating or gagging at the sight or smell of food
  • Fearful of movement such as a swing at the playground, or avoids climbing
  • Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another
  • Refusal to wear certain articles of clothing
  • Extreme reaction to loud noises
  • Dislikes grooming and hygiene tasks such as having their hair washed or brushed
  • Constantly spinning, bumping or crashing into things


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