Raising The Highly Sensitive Child – Sensory Processing Disorder

There are a set of shared experiences among the parents of children with Sensory Processing Disorder and there is comfort in knowing that you are not alone. As a parent of two and a psychologist who works with parents and children, I understand the unique set of challenges faced by families raising highly sensitive children.

The Highly Sensitive Child

Photo of highly sensitive child with sensory processing disorderThe sensitive child is like a unique and multifaceted gem. This child shines brilliantly sometimes allowing you to see into the depth and clarity at the center, and at times reflecting you so intensely that you are called to see yourself in challenging and uncomfortable ways. At times, these children can project diamond quality strength. Other times, the intensity which with they feel the world can result in meltdowns and tantrums and we must help them through these scattered and intensely challenging moments. That is if we haven’t melted down right along with them! Helping the sensitive child make sense of their inner and outer world can take parents to and beyond their limits.

Raising a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder

There are a set of shared experiences among the parents of sensitive children and there is comfort in knowing that you are not alone in the challenges you are facing.  Here is what parents of sensitive children often say:Photo of distressed young girl

  • My daughter is different than other children.
  • My 6 year-old son disrupts our home with his extreme meltdowns; he always needs to be the center of attention
  • My spouse and I are fighting more and blaming each other for our child’s behavior
  • Raising this child takes everything out of me!  I’m exhausted and sometimes feel that I am not cut out for parenting.

Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder and Highly Sensitive Children

brain traffic for webOnce I understood Sensory Processing Disorder I finally had the information I needed to stop blaming myself or feeling as though I was crazy! My child was having a neurological “traffic jam” that was the invisible culprit behind her behavioral breakdowns and anxious approach to the world.

Technically, Sensory Processing Disorder and Highly Sensitive Children are two different but related conditions. Sensory Processing Disorder was first identified by A. Jean Ayres an occupational therapist who identified that some children over- or under-respond in one or multiple senses (e.g. tactile sensitivity, sound sensitivity, light sensitivity). The highly sensitive child is a related concept developed by Elaine Aron who describes these children as easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others.The sensory challenges shared by parents and children I work with include:

  • My child says that most clothes hurt her. She will only wear two pairs of pants and I can barely get her to school in the mornings if those pants are not clean.
  • If my child gets bumped while standing in line at school he reacts as if someone hit him purposely.
  • There are sounds that I hardly notice but my child puts her hands to her ears in pain!
  • We can’t go to the movies because my child feels everything so strongly like it is happening to him.

Guidance for Parents of Highly Sensitive Children

  • Stop blaming yourself and/or your partner. Sensory processing challenges are real and require tremendous patience.
  • Get a thorough assessment. Children with Sensory Processing Disorder often have other co-presenting neurodevelopmental challenges such as learning disorders (dyslexia), ADHD, autism, and anxiety. However, getting an accurate diagnosis is important as some children are inaccurately diagnosed with ADHD and are medicated unnecessarily.
  • Trust your child! Highly sensitive children often also have a capacity for deep reflection and empathy when given the time to process their environment.
  • Get down to their level. The language of the younger child is play. Most children with sensory challenges feel out of control much of the time. Let your child take the lead in imaginary play, allow yourself to follow, and give your child an experience of being in charge or his or her world.
  • Parent and child connectionBecome your child’s emotional coach. Help older children talk about their feelings and reflect on what they are experiencing. Validate, reflect, and help them develop problem solving skills.
  • Repair your rocky moments. Reviewing our rough times involves admitting when we parents are not perfect and gives our children permission to make mistakes as well. Good-enough parenting involves ruptures and repair that allows everyone to learn from even our most challenging experiences.
  • Get help. It takes a village and when it comes to raising the highly sensitive child build your team. Often a treatment team involves play therapy, occupational therapy, speech language, and parenting support. Find a support group or online forum to talk with other parents raising children with Sensory Processing Disorder. I am available to help.

Further reading:


Raising The Highly Sensitive Child – Sensory Processing Disorder — 3 Comments

  1. I believe you need to do some more research and read some of the books and research that Elaine Aron has done. She specifically states that SPD, a disorder, and High Sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity, a personality type are not the same. High Sensitivity is a normal inborn set of personality traits present in 15%-20% of all animal populations. HSP process information more thoroughly than people who are not HS and due to this HSP are more easily overstimulated by sensory stimulation. This is what contributes to HSC having occasion challenges with sensory stimulation such as rough clothes, it is not due to a malfunction in processing the information because they are not getting organized properly in the brain. Elaine Aron has a great book and seminar on Psychotherapy and The Highly Sensitive Person that would clear up some of your misunderstandings.

    • Thank you for taking the time to write your response to this blog. I continue to read and educate myself on both highly sensitive people as well as the unique elements of Sensory Processing Disorder. I do value Elaine Aron’s contributions to our understanding of the highly sensitive concept.

  2. My 27 Month old grandson has been diagnosed with spd. At one time he was spewing out “hi daddy and hi mama” putting together puzzles etc. His father is a medical professional mother a teacher. They noticed the signs right away. He started regressing. He does not speak as much anymore. We never ignored these signs.

    It’s hard to watch. But he is such a special little boy. I guess what is most difficult is I really want to know how to help him. How do we reach him? I know his thoughts are there. How do we help him communicate with us? How do we help him smile more and have fun?

    He is having trouble falling asleep. Doesn’t really acknowledge his little sister. Kind of ignores her. Loves to watch one particular show. They have a picture schedule which he follows daily so he is following a routine for the most part. He is familiar with it. He is smart enough to know what pictures he likes and which he doesn’t. (Doesn’t like brushing his teeth). Loves watching his show. We love him so much and we are reaching out to you for any professional advice you can give. Thank you and Merry Christmas.

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