Is your child:
A child with these challenges may look like a little ‘Evil Knievel,’ having no fear, relentlessly in the pursuit of thrills. They may be willing to try anything and may fail to check if the coast is clear before taking a leap.
It is important to differentiate true problems here as compared to the typical and necessary exploration of childhood playtime. Some critical issues have gone unnoticed and untreated due to the age-old belief that ‘boys will be boys’ or the notion that ‘she will grow out of it.’ If your child is unable to participate with peers due to excessive movement or clumsiness, this challenge is a red flag, worthy of looking into further.
Many children with these challenges are too intense in their movements. They need to be hugged very tightly and may need deep pressure or weighted blankets to calm down. They may jump off of high equipment repeatedly. When they crash on the ground, they may seem not to feel it the way others do.
Motor skills are heavily regulated by the sensory system; when impaired, these skills have a significant impact on the ability to participate in a wide variety of activities, particularly in sports, recess, and physical education. A child may appear to be uncomfortable in his or her own skin. He or she may look ‘floppy’ and have poor posture and a lack of stability.
Sensorimotor development starts in early infancy and impacts the ability to participate in school, athletics, and social activities. Children with poor sensorimotor perception in the areas of balance, motion, and body-space tend to be clumsy and uncoordinated. They may be easily injured and may have frequent falls. They often cannot judge their body space, bumping into walls while walking down the hall or hitting their heads on the top of the tunnel slide.
Children who have challenges with balance, coordination, and locomotion generally have sensory deficits in the vestibular or proprioceptive systems, or both. The vestibular system is responsible for motor control, speed of movement, and the body’s position in space. Vestibular processing is best defined as,
“In essence, the vestibular system is like a precise internal GPS, used for maintaining the orientation of head and body in time and space, along with the auditory and visual systems” .
Vestibular processing: Essentially, the vestibular system keeps track of where we are and where we are going. Children with difficulties in vestibular processing tend to miscalculate the space between themselves and other objects. They have poor physical boundaries and often crash into things or bump into people.
Proprioceptive processing: The other area that may be impacted if your child is chronically moving and uncoordinated may be the proprioceptive system. The term proprioception is from the Latin word ‘proprius,’ which means ‘one’s own,’ and from ‘capio,’ which means to grasp the relative position [2,3]. Thus, the word proprioceptive is referring to our own body space awareness [2,3]. Children with poor proprioceptive modulation tend to struggle with motor milestones and basic coordination. They might be slow to crawl, walk, or run due to poor bi-lateral control.
Robots, Gumby dolls, and the Bull in the China Shop: They do not move smoothly and may look like a robot, being stiff and jerky in their movements. Alternately, they may look like ‘Gumby,’ being far too flexible and uncontrolled as they walk or run. Children with these issues may talk too close to people’s faces because they are unaware of body-space. They may unintentionally knock over furniture or break objects. They may appear like ‘a bull in a china shop’.
Cognitive load: One important issue to consider here is that the movements and body space regulated by the vestibular and proprioceptive systems are supposed to be somewhat automatic. Most of us do not have to spend a lot of time thinking about how close things are to us, how our legs are positioned, or whether or not we are about to bump into a wall. When these skills are taking a lot of effort for your child, concerns can be raised about something psychologists call ‘cognitive load.’ That is, when things that are supposed to be automatic take a lot of work, your child’s brain may have trouble thinking about the task at hand. It is analogous to trying to have a productive day at work when you are hungry or are not feeling well. So much effort and energy is being spent on maintaining your physical body; your brain might not be able to think straight.
Odd behavior: Kids who are sensory seeking may also show some odd behaviors in other areas. For example, a child may reach out and pet a classmate’s hair. Another issue may be the tendency to repetitively rub one’s face on a piece of fabric. A child may run around in the wind, to feel the breeze, in a compulsive fashion. These behaviors arise from a child’s tendency to seek out sensory stimulation as well.
If you are wondering about your child’s sensory regulation, it is generally advised to have a full psychological evaluation. Why? Because in clinical practice it is observed almost unilaterally that sensory problems do not occur in isolation. It is a mistake to think that your child’s sensory issue tells the whole story. It does not. Children with poor sensory regulation almost always have an underlying psychological, neurological, or medical issue.
Sensory Processing Disorder: Here at the CLEAR, in accordance with the American Medical Association, sensory problems are not considered a disability. Rather, these problems are considered a symptom of a disability. We feel strongly that too many children with autism, ADHD, or a medical condition are being drastically underserved with a diagnosis of ‘Sensory Processing Disorder.’
Although sensory problems are worthy of and amenable to treatment, sensory therapy alone is unlikely to essentially, ‘cure what ails you.’ Said another way, children with sensory problems are likely to have disabilities that require therapies far beyond those recognized by a sensory regulation ‘diagnosis.’
If you feel that your child may have a sensory problem, it is recommended that your child have a comprehensive psychological evaluation to consider the following: ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Trauma or PTSD, Developmental (Motor) Coordination Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, or Developmental Delay. Any of these disabilities may be the root cause of your child’s sensory problems. A licensed psychologist will not only determine which diagnoses are relevant for your child but will also make recommendations for treatment of that disability and any co-occurring sensory difficulties.
Activities to help a sensory seeking child:
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.
Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:
 Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
 Vestibular and Proprioceptive:
 Sensory Development: Vestibular & Proprioceptive
 Trail (2011). Twice exceptional gifted children: Understanding, teaching, and counseling gifted students. Prufrock, Waco, TX.
 Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.
 Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
 Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.
Description: Young Boys Racing Wearing Watermelon Helmets
Stock Photo ID: #483600588 (iStock)
By: Rich Vintage
Previously Licensed on: April 23, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology