Sensory Processing Disorders in the Child that Can’t Stop…

G2 is a child that has a fascination with chewing stuff. As a toddler, he chewed up books, toys, bottles – anything that he got his hands on. I wasn’t too bothered because I knew that many children go through an oral stage where they feel a need to put things into their mouths. The mouth, being one of the most richly innervated parts of the body, is highly sensitive which makes it an effective tool for young children trying to explore a new object. G2 would eventually grow out of it, or so I thought…

G2 is 5 years old and he’s still chewing objects to a pulp – like this piece of Lego:

He’s chewed up countless objects, including the strap on his water bottle and a keychain. He chews off his nails before they can even grow long enough for me to cut them. I’ve caught him putting numerous non-food items in his mouth despite the fact that I have repeatedly explained to him about the dangers of doing so. After observing him for a while, I realised that he isn’t really even conscious of what he’s doing sometimes. It’s only after I bring it to his attention that he becomes aware and he stops only to start again a few minutes later when something else distracts him.

Chewable Jewellery

Some time back, a friend suggested that I get him chewable jewellery so I started to look into it. It turns out, chewable jewellery and fidgets have been found to be very effective for children with ADHD, Autism and other learning disabilities.

Sydney Zentall, Ph.D., of Purdue University, studied the factors that help ADHD children succeed in the classroom. In ADHD and Education, she notes that attention “deficit” increases with the length, familiarity, and repetitiveness of a task. In other words, you tune out when tasks get boring!

According to Zentall, an activity that uses a sense other than that required for the primary task — listening to music while reading a social studies textbook — can enhance performance in children with ADHD. Doing two things at once, she found, focuses the brain on the primary task.

Zentall calls these sensory-motor activities “distractions.” We call them fidgets — mindless activities you can do while working on a primary task. We’re not talking about wriggling in your seat. Fidgeting is more intentional. It’s pacing or doodling while on the phone or chewing gum while taking a test. – Additude

So how does this relate to my child who does not have ADHD or any learning disabilities that I am aware of? If fidgeting helps children with ADHD, will it also help my active child? A study from the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology indicates otherwise:

Children with ADHD who performed a working-memory task while seated in a chair that could swivel performed better on average the more they moved. The opposite was true for a control group of typically developing children, who fared worse the more they moved. – WSJ

Yet it was clear to me that G2 needed a fidget because I would be trying to teach him Math using manipulatives and he would absently keep taking my counters. He couldn’t concentrate if I took them away from him. And if I didn’t find him something safe to chew on, he would continue to chew potentially hazardous objects. What was his problem?

Sensory Processing Disorder

There is a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder (also referred to as Sensory Seeking Disorder) where individuals afflicted with the condition are constantly looking for ways to stimulate their senses. They are often very active and impulsive and are frequently diagnosed as having ADHD (even if they do not).

Just in case you’re wondering whether SPD is just a trumphed up disorder in our world of hypochondria, the UCSF have found a biological basis for SPDs in kids.

There are several different types of Sensory Processing Disorders based on the type of sensory input the individual seeks. SPD also exists on a spectrum with symptoms manifesting in different ways. Like ADHD, the diagnosis of SPD is only given when the symptoms are severe enough to affect normal functioning and disrupt everyday life. It was also interesting to note that Sensory Processing Disorders may be present in isolation or they may occur along with other conditions, such as ADHD, ASD, developmental disorders, or learning disabilities.

Tactile Seeking

  • Love touching and being touched
  • May become even physically violent in search of touch
  • Feel the need to touch everything or everyone, craving certain textures
  • Often try to balance out touch sensations on either side of the body

Gustatory/Oral Seeking

  • Crave certain textures and flavors excessively
  • Frequently overstuff their mouths when eating, even to the point of gagging
  • Will put anything in their mouths in search of oral input, such as chewing or crunchy sensations
  • May have a diagnosed eating disorder for overeating
  • Will chew or suck on things excessively

Proprioceptive Seeking

  • Love to crash or bump into things
  • Frequently crack knuckles or stretch limb
  • Crave highly physical activities and love to play contact sports
  • Often bump into or jump onto furniture
  • High levels of energy and arousal

Auditory Seeking

  • Love loud noises, often watch TV and listen to music very loudly
  • Will often speak louder than is necessary
  • May frequently make noises just to hear them
  • Need to listen to music to concentrate

Visual Seeking

  • May love or crave bright lights
  • May frequently stare at bright or spinning lights
  • Need a lot of light in a room to concentrate or focus

Vestibular Seeking

  • Crave movements in head or body position
  • May love to spin in circles
  • Love being upside down or sideways
  • Love going on roller coasters and other amusement park rides
  • May frequently jump from high heights
  • May repeat certain movements almost endlessly just for the sensation


I don’t know for sure if G2 has SPD but he certainly fits the bill for a number of SPD types. Neither am I sure if I could go as far as to say that his symptoms disrupts everyday life but then again, absently putting objects into your mouth even when you know it’s dangerous doesn’t sound quite right either.

They say that children with specific SPDs (like the kind I think G2 has) can also benefit from having fidgets and safe items to chew on so perhaps we should just start there. If he’s going to chew on stuff no matter how many times I tell him not to, it is probably better for both of us if I offer him a safer option.

Interestingly, after learning about these signs and symptoms, I realise that G1 also exhibits SPD, albeit in a different manner. It was his teacher that brought it to my attention when she suggested that he might benefit from using fidgets in class. Now that I’ve had time to reflect on it, I feel bad about all the times when I got annoyed at him for his unconscious actions, like sucking his lips until they became red, and for doing other similar actions that I had always presumed were conscious and deliberate.

Dealing with Sensory Processing Disorder

A good place to start is the School Success Kit for Kids with Sensory Processing Issues (focus on the tips that apply most to your individual child):

  • Stress-Free Clothing: When it comes to clothes, use the 3 S rule: softer, simpler, and seamless.
  • Avoid the New: For example, the first day of school is not the right time to try those brand-new outfits. If it is a new school uniform, let your child try it out a week before school starts.
  • Hearing Protection: Sound-cancelling headphones to foam earplugs can be great tools for dealing with the noise from school buses, lunchrooms, halls, and even classrooms.
  • Eye Protection: Lightly-tinted sunglasses can help the light-sensitive child.
  • Sensory Kits: Depending on your child’s individual needs, this kit will vary but some great things to add include: chewing gum, a comforting tactile object they can play with without disrupting the class such as a stress ball or silly putty, snacks to keep blood sugar up, and a weighted lap pad.
  • Signs and Signals: Give teachers a heads-up about your child’s sensory needs, so they’ll know what to look for and how to support him during class. Kids can also arrange to have a secret signal with teachers they can use if they need a break.
  • Give Everything a Test Drive: Whether it’s a new kind of ear protection or the most comfortable bookbag, be sure to test drive all your new tools ahead of time.
  • Routines: Kids with sensory issues do best when they know what to expect.
  • Accommodations: Kids with sensory issues may need accommodations of a different kind than schools are used to granting. For example, being allowed to chew gum, wear dark glasses, or use earplugs during class. You can also ask to be warned of potentially jarring school events, such as fire drills or surprise pep rallies, so you’ll have time to make sure your child is prepared.

For some children, this may be enough. Others may require more help. The Child Mind Institute also talks about the use of treatment methodologies such as Sensory Integration Therapy and Sensory Diets.

Fidgets and Chewable Jewellery

  • Chewigem – designed for the mild to moderate chewer and is intended to sooth and comfort children through adults with any type of additional needs.
  • ARK Therapeutic – innovative therapy tools and special needs products from oral motor tools, feeding and drinking aids to speech therapy tools and sensory chews.
  • Tangle Jr – stress relieving fidget toys.



A Call to End Early Starts in Education

We all know about the damaging effects of losing sleep. Some of us have also acknowledged how devastating it can be on our adolescents who have altered circadian rhythms that affect their ability to fall asleep early enough to accommodate the early school starting times. Yet, despite knowing all this, nothing much is happening on the front to delay the starting times for school.

Part of the problem lies in the entrenched belief that teenagers struggle to wake up in the morning because they’re lazy, or because they lack the discipline to sleep earlier. Perhaps if more parents realised that the problem lies in their teenagers’ internal body clock, there might be a stronger push to delay school starting times.

Then again, even if we were all on board, uprooting an entire school’s schedule is not easy to initiate. Not only will it difficult for the school but for the families as well. Those with more than one child will have children attending school at different times, making it harder to coordinate drop off and pick up. Pushing back the start time by one hour will mean hitting peak hour traffic which will defeat the purpose of starting later if we end up spending more time on the road getting the kids to school.

I remain hopeful that we will eventually find a resolution for this problem because many schools have already made significant headway towards improving the education system for our children. Meanwhile, if we continue to spread awareness of this issue, perhaps it might gain the attention it deserves. The following article published by Routledge outlines the crux of the problem:

Synchronizing education to adolescent biology: ‘Let teens sleep, start school later’

Paul Kelley, Steven W. Lockley, Russell G. Foster & Jonathan Kelley.
Volume 40, Issue 1, Learning, Media and Technology.

Study reveals that traditional student start times are damaging learning and health

A study by researchers from the University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School and the University of Nevada has found that current school and university start times are damaging the learning and health of students.

Drawing on the latest sleep research, the authors conclude students start times should be 08:30+ at age 10; 10:00+ at 16; and 11:00+ at 18. Implementing these start times should protect students from short sleep duration and chronic sleep deprivation, which are linked to poor learning and health problems.

What are the optimal times for starting school?

  • 10 years old – 8:30am
  • 16 years old – 10:00am
  • 18 years old – 11:00am

These findings arise from a deeper understanding of circadian rhythms, better known as the body clock, and the genes associated with regulating this daily cycle every 24 hours.

It is during adolescence when the disparity between inherent circadian rhythms and the typical working day come about. Circadian rhythms determine our optimum hours of work and concentration, and in adolescence these shift almost 3 hours later. These genetic changes in sleeping patterns were used to determine start times that are designed to optimize learning and health.

The US Department of Health has also recently published an article in favour of changing the start times for Middle and High Schools.

Learn more at the British Science Festival

Corresponding author Paul Kelley (Honorary Clinical Research Associate, Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, University of Oxford) will be presenting Time: the key to really understanding our lives at the British Science Festival on Tuesday 8 September. As the British Science Association’s President of Education this academic year, Kelley will be advising the audience on how our better understanding of our body clock can benefit us all.

The Festival will take place from 7-10 September in Bradford, and provides an opportunity to meet researchers face-to-face and discuss the latest science, technology and engineering.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend, but if you’re in the region, you can still reserve your place at (space for some events is limited, so you’d better book now).


The Science of Touch: A Hug a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Image Source: Design Your Way

When I was a new Mum, I was warned not to carry my baby too much or he would get spoiled. “Try not to pick him up immediately when he cries or he will expect to be picked up whenever he makes a sound,” they said. In my ignorance, I heeded that advice – initially – until I learned that you can’t spoil babies because their rational brains are too undeveloped for them to have the clarity of thought to manipulate their parents.

When babies are born, much of the rational brain is undeveloped and they are ruled largely by their reptilian and mammalian brains in the first few years of life. Given the very limited repertoire of actions a babies has at birth, crying is a baby’s only means of saying, “I’m tired”, “I’m hungry”, or “I’m overstimulated”. When babies cry, they are not trying to exercise their lungs or control their parents. They cry because they are communicating a need whether emotional or physical. For a baby, an emotional need is no less important than a physical need, and when that emotional need is unfulfilled, the pain the baby feels can be as strong as a physical hurt.

Touch is as Essential as Sunlight

Contrary to the early parenting advice I received, picking up babies and holding them a lot is not really bad for them at all – in fact, it is important because babies need touch. It is vital for their survival.

At the end of World War II, the babies raised in the arms of village women, surrounded by children, goats and dogs, who were fed goat’s milk and eventually from the communal stockpot, were thriving better than the babies who were sent to pristine field hospitals where they slept in stainless steel cots, lived in hygienic wards and received 24-hour feeds of special infant milk formula.

The reason for this is because one of the basic needs a baby requires is love – which, when you break it down, is really just the physical and emotional connection to another person.

See also: Children need touching and attention – Harvard University

Image Source: Inspired

The science of touch supports this. Even as babies grow into children, they will continue to need that connection in order to grow, learn and stay healthy.

Young children, especially, emotionally recharge themselves by connecting with their parents through touch. You may notice this when your toddler climbs onto your lap only to bounce off again seconds later to run off an play.

The biggest compliment a child can give a parent is to frequently run back to touch them briefly.  Such actions are known as “emotional refueling” – a child’s need to reconnect with Mum so they can continue with their independent activities. – The Science of Parenting

Touch remains important whether you are dealing with adults or children – something to remember as our children grow older… even our teenagers who get embarrassed by our public displays of affection will still enjoy a hug in private.

When I was a student, I had to assist in a surgical procedure. The patient needed a biopsy of his jaw joint and the surgeon had requested the anaesthetist to insert the tube through the patient’s nose. Inserting the tube through the nose is much more uncomfortable than if it goes through the mouth and I remember watching as the patient writhed on the operating table. Many times, I wanted to take his hand to offer support but I was scared that he would discard my hand in disdain. When I finally worked up the courage to take his hand, he surprised me by gripping my hand back and I realised I was silly not to have offered my hand sooner.

Image Source: Tohoku J Exp Med 2011

Touch Therapy

Proper uses of touch can also play a role in the healing practice of medicine:

  • studies show that touching patients with Alzheimer’s disease can have huge effects on getting them to relax, make emotional connections with others, and reduce their symptoms of depression.
  • massage therapy reduces pain in pregnant women and alleviates prenatal depression.
  • getting eye contact and a pat on the back from a doctor may boost survival rates of patients with complex diseases.

Proper uses of touch can also make a difference in effective education:

  • when teachers pat students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class.
  • when librarians pat the hand of a student checking out a book, that student says he or she likes the library more—and is more likely to come back.
  • touch can even be a therapeutic way to reach some of the most challenging children – some research suggests that children with autism, widely believed to hate being touched, actually love being massaged by a parent or therapist.

Touch Increases Compliance, Helping Behaviour and Performance

There are numerous studies demonstrating the power of touch. Something as simple as a light touch on the arm can increase compliance and helping behaviour:

  • it can encourage people to return a lost item
  • it can encourage people to leave a bigger tip
  • it makes people more likely to help out
  • it encourages people to be more compliant
  • it can increase your chances of selling your car
  • it can increase your chances of getting a date

Touch can even increase performance:

A touch can be so subtle and fleeting, but its effect transcends – we may not even remember the touch, but we will remember the way we felt.

Appropriate Touches

As always, with a topic as sensitive as this, some caution and disclaimers are necessary. While touch can be extremely beneficial, it must also remain in the realm of propriety. What’s appropriate or inappropriate depends on many factors:

  • your relationship with the individual
  • cultural considerations
  • quality of the touch – intensity, duration and circumstances
  • accompanying signals – e.g. eye to eye contact

For a general guideline of what is appropriate, San Diego State University School of Communication emeritus professor Peter Andersen, author of Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functionsmakes the following recommendation:

Outside of your closest relationships, stick to the safe zones of shoulders and arms (handshakes, high fives, backslaps), and in the office, it’s always better for a subordinate, rather than a superior or manager, to initiate. The back is very low in nerve endings, so that’s OK too. – Psychology Today