The Best Way to Tell the Difference Between Sensory Issues and Other Childhood Disorders

by ParentCo. August 11, 2017

boy covering his ears at railway station

Sensory processing issues can be misunderstood and misdiagnosed as a number of things, most commonly ADHD and anxiety disorders. In my opinion it is necessary to rule out any sensory issues or address them as thoroughly as possible before considering other diagnoses.
Does your child seem agitated and is he agitating to be around? Or conversely, does she avoid being with others, and seem to shut down when she would really like to connect? Usually our kids want to do things right – to listen, sit still, control their impulses, be a member of the group – but sometimes they’re unable to. This can be frustrating for children, especially when they are blamed for such behavior.
In my practice, I see many kids like this. They appear to have signs of ADHD, but it could be something entirely different. Some of the behaviors may be part of these children’s hard wiring, but the sudden outbursts, the inability to control impulses, or the intolerance of any noise in the room could indicate sensory processing issues. I highly recommend getting children checked for sensory issues before anything else.
Sensory processing issues are often misunderstood. They have more to do with how the brain processes the senses rather than the senses themselves. Children with sensory processing issues can be either sensory seekers or sensory avoiders. For example, a child may make loud sounds in order to hear the reverberation in her head that she is craving because her brain has not registered certain pitches of sound. Alternatively, a child might find the seams in her socks are intolerable because her brain is receiving too much stimulation. Both of these could be going on within the same child.
To further complicate things, standard testing of visual and hearing exams won’t necessarily indicate problems. In fact, visual and auditory issues are often missed. Most exams for vision and hearing at schools and in the doctor’s office do not test for deeper visual and auditory issues.
If sensory issues are found, addressing these issues with appropriate therapies as early and as thoroughly as possible is important. I find that some alternative therapies, such as brain balancing therapies, to be more efficient than others. The right sensory therapies will reconnect wiring in the brain that is out of balance, solving the problem at its core. Only once that’s done can you or a professional see more clearly if there are other issues.
An example is Jane (name has been changed). She seems jumpy, has difficulty reading, and tends to not have a good “space bubble” around her, meaning she gets a little too close to friends and knocks things over accidentally. She consistently tested as having 20/20 vision, but through testing with a certified developmental optometrist, it was discovered that she has esotropia (one eye turned in at times) and tracking issues (had a difficult time finding words on a page when looking from left to right). Once her issues were identified and she received vision therapy, she was able to control herself. Her mother reported that she was “so much more grounded.” While she may still have ADHD, she appears much less agitated and has her self-esteem back because she’s no longer agitating to others!
Another child, Dennis, was very loud at inappropriate times, seemed agitated internally, especially in noisy environments, and was annoying to others around him. At times he requested to be in a room by himself; at others he joined the group, but became loud and aggressive. Similarly, his mom reported that he would begin yelling when a blender or vacuum was turned on. The paradox is that he may have been yelling to match the noise he perceived in order to tolerate it: He yelled as a coping mechanism to the overwhelm the loud noise makes him feel. While he was thought to have a problem with his ears, he tested as having good hearing.
After proper testing, it turned out Dennis had CAPD (Central Auditory Processing Disorder), which made him unable to filter noises properly. He heard far away noises as if they were close up, and, unless he was looking at her lips, he didn’t hear his mother standing directly in front of him. His brain needed to be retrained to hear appropriately. After completing auditory therapy, he became more grounded and no longer shouted at odd times. Now, when his mother talks to him and he “doesn’t hear,” he jokes, “oh, now I hear you, I was just ignoring you.” At least now it is his choice and he’s kept his sense of humor.
An important point to make here is that these therapies can be intense for some kids and can temporarily exacerbate behaviors. At one point, Dennis stopped auditory therapy because he was very resistant to it. At about the same time his challenging behavior escalated. I urged the parent to continue the therapy, but with someone who knew how to regulate it according to what he could tolerate, and who could help balance his system while he was going through it.
I know that all of the therapies and diagnoses can be overwhelming. While we want the best for our children, many of our brains and budgets are overstretched. As someone who has been trained to diagnose children in the mental health setting, I know that sensory issues can look like any number of pathologies to professionals. I urge parents to look into sensory issues before accepting a diagnosis of ADHD or anxiety first and foremost. Considering and addressing sensory issues can actually solve many behavioral issues more efficiently and properly than more common treatments. It may lead to a more grounded, peaceful child who can manage his world. It may even make your world more manageable.



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