Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition where one’s brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes through their senses. This could include hypersensitivity to light, sound, even certain smells and the way things feel. Although many SPD cases are in connection with other disorders such as ADHD or Autism, Sensory Processing Disorders can be diagnosed on its own making it an invisible disability many can’t see.
Beyond the visible fine motor skills the other baffling behavior typically seen might be categorized by outsiders as “poor discipline” in a child or “bad parenting”. SPD meltdowns include tantrums, screaming, crying and even aggression, all of which are typically seen in a poorly disciplined child.
So what is the difference? Well due to this disorder a child’s senses are on complete overload. It’s like a having a 5 o’clock big city traffic jam of information in their brain and they feel trapped. Overwhelmed with information, children and even adults with this disorder need to release the buildup in their brain and so they lash out. They release all of the stress and anxiety the information has caused and unfortunately many times that is done through physical reactions and emotions.
Many see these types of reactions as meltdowns which frequently occur in public. With the world rushing around it can become overwhelming to those with a disorder and a simply family outing can turn into a hurricane no parent can prepare for very quickly.
Feeling helpless and frustrating as bystanders stare and make judgments, the parents of these poor children feel humiliated and misunderstood. They hear words aimed at their children such as picky, spoiled, bratty, and poorly disciplined and the worse, them being accused of bad parenting.
What those who are unaware of Sensory Disorders don’t understand is that it is uncontrollable. It’s a grey area of knowledge that typical discipline does not and cannot apply to. However there are a few things you can do as an outsider, family member or friend to help a situation when an episode does erupt.
- Don’t Judge
Although it can be hard not to assume the worst, realize that a parent is trying the best they can and that the child is reacting the only way they know how in order to stop the pain. Also realize that a child with SPD can be assumed to be “normal” if not paired with a disorder that can physically be seen. Not all disorders are physically visible so be cautious when touching on the subject with others, and never assume that someone does or does not have a disorder simply based on their looks.
As hard as it is to let go of your instincts to negatively react to such a situation, put yourself in their shoes and realize the difficulties the family has to face. Show empathy and realize that a disorder of this type is actually quite common. 1 in 20 children have a sensory issue, many of whom go undiagnosed or are unaware they have one.
- Be Sympathetic
It is an overwhelming feeling for a parent of a child with SPD to have to endure a public meltdown. Knowing there are people out there who understand and are willing to help ease their stress and anxiety is comforting for these parents. In fact even the child having a meltdown can feel your emotions and presence, possibly even helping them come out of a breakdown they might be in the middle of having.
As uncomfortable as it may be, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Learn about the disorder and find out how you can help. When a child has a meltdown it is common for the act of lashing out to engulf them into their own world of destruction. You can help by redirecting their attention to get them out from under the meltdown cloud they’re currently under. By activating a different sense it can redirect their brain from the overload another one of the senses might have created.
In addition to helping redirect their attention you can also inform the parents of a quite or dimly lit area if you witnessed one somewhere in the store. Tell them where its located and let them know you are there for anything they might need.
- Don’t Enable
Parents know their children. They know when they’re over reacting, and when they’re actually having a sensory overload. Aggression is a reaction to SPD that parents do not take lightly. It is something that although cannot fully be controlled it is one that they make sure their child knows is not appropriate. So although an outburst or two is uncontrollable, know that hitting, biting, or punching is not and that a parent will try to calm the situation immediately.
- Don’t be Offended
As family or friends of a child with a Sensory Processing Disorder, realize that many times parents choose not to take their child into public for obvious reasons. It’s quite difficult for them as well as the child and they might not want to take the chance of them having to deal with an outburst if it can be avoided. Don’t be offended if when they do come out their stay is short lived, they leave quite often to take their child to a quieter area or if they have fed them before previously coming to a party due to a possible sensory issue their child might have regarding food.
Sensory processing disorders or any disorder with children involving sensory sensitivity can be challenging. As a parent of a child with a disorder it’s important to “have the talk” with your friends and family to inform them of all of the challenges they might see your child facing and teach them how they can help. Not all SPD conditions are alike and every child reacts to receiving and responding information differently. So as a bystander, be empathetic and make sure to show your support. There’s no shame in being different and although it may create havoc at times, those parents love their child unconditionally and your help to hold their hand through the pain can make all the difference.
Learn more at:
To hear live stories of families with SPD visit: