These sensory red flags may indicate that a child needs extra help or support to manage sensory processing concerns.
*This post contains affiliate links.
We’ve been working hard over the last year to bring you monthly posts about sensory processing and how the sensory systems relate to child development.
Each month, we’ve written a post about one of the sensory systems from our point of view as pediatric therapists and our friend Dayna, from Lemon Lime Adventures, has written a post about the same sensory system from her perspective as an educator and a mom of a child with sensory processing disorder.
In our series of resources about sensory processing, we’ve written about:
the tactile system,
the auditory system,
the vestibular system,
the oral sensory system, and
the visual system.
Today, as a part of an even bigger series with over 40 other bloggers called Decoding Everyday Kid Behaviors, we’ll discuss sensory red flags – behaviors related to sensory integration that might indicate that it’s time to get some expert advice to help support your child’s sensory needs.
Sensory Red Flags
We all have our own unique preferences and aversions when it comes to the way perceive the sensory information in our surroundings. But for some children, these preferences and aversions can become problematic, leading to difficulty participating in everyday activities and routines.
The following behaviors are sensory red flags and may indicate that a child requires additional support.
The Auditory System
-Extreme reactions (crying, screaming, running away) or significant difficulty with tolerating sudden noises, specific noises, crowds, and/or loud noises
-Startling easily, becoming agitated in noisy environments
-Distracted by all sounds
-Covering ears even at the anticipation of a sound or in uncertain/unfamiliar environments
-Difficulty responding to and following directions presented verbally
-Making constant noises (singing, humming, clicking)
-Not responding when name is called
The Vestibular System
-Constantly moving, fidgeting, spinning around
-Fearful of movement (e.g. stairs, playground equipment, swings)
-Uncoordinated, clumsy, bumping into things, falling, difficulty learning new motor tasks
-Slumping, slouching, leaning on desk or on walls when walking in the hallway
-Difficulty with maintaining balance when walking and during gross motor play
The Proprioceptive System
-Coloring/writing with heavy pressure or not enough pressure
-Pushing others, playing aggressively, constant roughhousing
-Doing everything with 100% force, not grading the force of movements adequately
-Crashing/falling on the floor constantly throughout the day
-Difficulty with body awareness (runs into objects/others)
-Appearing tired or sluggish (slumping and leaning)
The Visual System
-Easily distracted by surrounding visual stimuli (e.g. posters or art on the walls, activity in the room).
-Difficulty visually focusing on a task like coloring a picture or completing a worksheet
-Not noticing surroundings unless things are pointed out
-Staring intently at objects or becoming fixated on visual stimuli (e.g. fans, lights)
-Arranging objects in a specific way repeatedly (e.g. lining objects up, stacking objects up)
The Oral Sensory System
-Very reluctant to trying new foods, extremely picky eater
-Extreme resistance to oral sensory experiences like brushing teeth
-Refusal to use utensils to eat
-Choking or gagging during eating or brushing teeth
-Constant biting, chewing on, or mouthing hands, clothing, fingers, toys, and other objects
-Constantly making mouth noises (clicking, buzzing, humming)
-Stuffing mouth with food at mealtimes
-Difficulty with chewing or drinking from a cup or straw
The Tactile System
-Avoiding getting hands or face messy, avoiding messy play
-Avoiding activities like fingerpainting, play dough, and eating messy foods
-Extreme reactions or tantrums during toothbrushing, bathing, haircuts, dressing
-Difficulty tolerating certain clothing, textures on skin (e.g. tags on clothing)
-Needing to touch everything and everyone (e.g. craving hugs and closeness with others, fidgeting with objects, seeking out textures and touch experiences)
When to Get Help
It’s time to get some help if your child is experiencing any of the behaviors described above (or behaviors in multiple sensory areas) to such a significant degree that it impacts his or her ability to:
-Interact with others
-Participate successfully at school
-Go out in public
-Tolerate basic self care and grooming experiences (bath/shower, brushing teeth, getting dressed)
-Attend family and other social events
-Eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight
-Get an adequate amount of sleep
Talk to your pediatrician about getting a referral to an occupational therapist who is trained to evaluate children’s specific sensory needs, provide therapeutic intervention to address them, and give you sensory input, strategies and suggestions to use at home.
Sensory Processing Resources
Sensory Processing Info & Quick Wins Handout Pack – This pack of 7 black and white and 7 full color handouts is the perfect resource for any therapist or professional who is looking for a simple way to educate others about sensory processing and the sensory systems.
Whether you are a parent, educator, caregiver, or therapist, Sensory Processing 101 is your starting point to gain a better understanding of sensory processing and the body’s sensory systems.
Latest posts by Claire Heffron (see all)
- Groundhog Day Activities: Groundhog Obstacle Course - January 26, 2023
- Valentine’s Day Activities for Kids: Hearts & Arrows Visual Game - January 24, 2023
- Snowman Activity for Kids: Snowman Charades - January 22, 2023
Hi! Thanks for the great post! Just want to make sure, this applies to hypersensitive kids, avoiders right? I have a seeker, so she is totally opposite of all these…
Hi Nadia! Thanks for reading our post and for your comment. The “red flag” behaviors above touch on both avoiding and seeking behaviors. Some of the behaviors above that would indicate a “seeking” pattern of sensory processing: Making constant noises (singing, humming, clicking) – Constantly moving, fidgeting, spinning around – Pushing others, playing aggressively – Crashing/falling on the floor constantly throughout the day – Staring intently at objects or becoming fixated on visual stimuli (e.g. fans, lights) – Stuffing mouth with food at mealtimes – Needing to touch everything and everyone. There are, of course, many many other behaviors that might be indicative of sensory seeking. These are just a few that we commonly see in our therapy practice. Hope this answers your question! :)
My 3 yr old has lots of these problems downsnt like wearing clothes still chockes on her foods can’t drink from a cup doesn’t like ppl touching her has major melt down makes a mmmm noises all time flaps her hands runs all day long spinning she has seen a pedatrican 4 weeks ago who said they were getting a ot involved at her school so u no how long this takes for this to take place
My son is a seeker as well, with every one of the areas you listed. He has had private occupational therapists for years and a sensory “diet”, but it’s hard to implement at school and he’s starting to get into trouble for his silly, disruptive behavior. At his IEP update this week, we decided to try letting him stand at his desk while working on centers, and we will encourage him to ask for movement and brain breaks when he needs them. He can use a mini trampoline or take a walk down the hall. Hopefully he will remember to do that instead of being silly with inappropriate noises, giggling, spitting water in the cafeteria, etc. We will also make him a social story to read about making better choices and a positive reinforcement behavior chart shaped like his favorite thing in the world, an elevator! Please let me know if you have other suggestions. Thanks!
Thanks so much for your comment. It sounds to me like you’re doing so many great things to support your son – from OT to a sensory diet to social stories to a behavior chart that appeals to his unique interests…you’ve really covered all of your bases! It’s so great to hear about a kiddo who is getting the help he needs because he has a mom who is “in the know”! Good luck to you and your son!
My son is 6 1/2 and for a little while now he’s been humming a lot. I sort of feel like he’s making his own “theme music” or something, but he doesn’t seem to be able to stop for very long if I ask him to stop. In the last couple years he started covering his ears whenever I’d get the vacuum out. And during homeschooling this year I’ve noticed he fidgets a lot during lessons. I keep reminding him that in school next year there won’t be toys and things to fidget with. I’m worried, but I also wonder if he’s just being a boy and these things will pass. When he’s around other kids at the park he’s amazing. No humming, loud noises don’t bother him. But at home the humming especially drives me crazy.
Michael Davis says
My 4 year old is also fine around other kids but at home he was constantly clearing his throat. Doctors insist it’s acid reflux. But I knew it wasn’t so I redirected him every time and eventually he stopped but now he constantly does a quick low hum. He tries to hide it from me but he can’t stop when he’s not being engaged. I think it soothes him and he is extremely intelligent. He’s been reading since 3. Now he does addition up to 10 so I don’t know how much I should worry. FYI I have put him through allergy testing, spectrum testing, and a surgical scope down his throat. No help. I don’t know whether to take him to a neurologist or just drop it. I’ll keep you a breast if anything new comes up.
Jo-Ann R. Jarvis says
Another great thing in the classroom with this type of activity is to use a large ball to roll their feet around and I would set a timer to finish work within a certain time frame..
this is very helpful information. My eight year old has a certain degree of SPD, but seems to be coping better than ever right now, except for a couple of things. She hates stickers and printed characters on clothing or bags etc. She goes so far as to ask her sister to button up her pjs all the way so she won’t see the printed dog on her vest, or asks her to turn the vest inside out!
Also, not that we would make a regular thing of this, but one day we were at a family wedding and got the kids a deli sandwich before the ceremony so they wouldn’t be hungry. My girl actually wouldn’t eat the sandwich until we took the price sticker off, she said it made her want to retch, being in such close proximity to her food.
She also demonstrates some behaviours like tightening her shoes so tightly that she bruises her feet and turning down the shower till it’s freezing but still insisting that it’s too hot.
I spoke to an OT friend of mine who said that these sensory issues are quite common in children who are born prematurely as my daughter was.
I’m looking forward to reading about more great strategies to deal with both my own child’s behaviours and possibly those in the classroom as I teach 9 and 10 year olds.
Hi Susan! Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment. So interesting that your daughter has an aversion to stickers and printed clothing. I’m glad you’re consulting with an OT to help you get to the bottom of some of her sensory processing issues. And yes, these concerns are quite common for children who are born prematurely. We hope you find some helpful information and activities here at The Inspired Treehouse!
Francesca Thomas says
My 12 year old son a very clear oral seeker – he chews his clothes if there is nothing else and he must ALWAYS have something in his mouth. And yes he is a VERY picky eater. He also has some auditory issues as well – sensitive to loud noises and jumps when a loud noise happens suddenly. when he was younger he had vestibular and proprioceptive issues as well. He was always falling over when he ran around. But he seems to have either grown out of those and learned to compensate, or he is no longer as clumsy as he used to be. However, even now, he does still occasionally fall over. again when he was younger, He was very sensitive to tactile – his clothes had to be a certainly type and he frequently wears his socks inside out so that the seams don’t bother him. The funny thing is that he has never been officially diagnosed. I reached this conclusion after reading a LOT of books. The Out of Sync Child was a huge eye opener!!! The one time I took him to a specialist pediatrician to be checked, they told me that he had signs of ADHD and to bring him back in a year once he started grade 1. I never bothered to go back since I knew that he dors not have ADHD. So I have had to create a sensory diet on my own. . So far he is doing OK. And not one teacher at his schools has ever suggested to me that his behaviour is a problem. He is also doing very well in school. I think he behaves himself in school so that he can just be himself at home. It’s a good thing he is an inly child!!!
Thanks for sharing. Can you explain sensory diet?. What exactly you ollow and how.
This is perfect. Thank you for sharing in our link up. :)
Thanks for a concise, well written article. I wanted to add that in our experience, it took longer to identify our daughter’s SPD due to her determination to hide her sensitivities while in public, building up to massive tantrums when she was home. Clothing sensitivity, constant oral sensation seeking and toe walking seemed like childhood quirks until she started to hit walls in Year 2. It was only then that she was diagnosed with significant auditory and visual processing disorders, and we began to understand the extent of the struggles she faced each day. It took a long time to deal with the guilt and regret for not picking it up earlier and for having dealt with her tantrums in a completely insensitive manner. I wanted to share this in case there is a parent out there who has that niggling sense that something is wrong, and yet their child’s ability to function makes them second guess themselves. Thanks again for a great article.
Thanks so much for your comment Karen! We really appreciate you sharing your experience with us and our readers and we totally agree that parents should always trust their gut if they sense that something is wrong. So glad you were able to identify your daughter’s needs and get her the help and supports she requires for success!
Thanks for this article, it’s helped to put my mind at rest. My 4 year old is resistant to many tactile and oral related things such as hair washing/cutting, nail cutting, clothes/buttons, and so on. Food has been a particular issue but is a bit better at the moment. He also is very sensitive to smell and certain visual things and they often make him feel nauseous. I think much of it stems from anxiety as he’s very emotional. I’ve been wondering whether to try and get some help but actually, from reading your list, I think we may be OK as he gets on pretty well at pre-school, generally is quite social, sleeps well and is a healthy weight. The self grooming is still a problem but I find ways around it and hopefully he’ll grow out of it! He’s also starting school this year so we’ll see how he gets on – I’m hoping the school dinners may help with food issues! Thanks again for the info :-)
This is really helpful. I am a PT, although not pediatric, so I am somewhat familiar with sensory integration. I know my daughter inherited from me some higher level sensory needs. They have never really affected my daily life, and I found ways to compensate. I watch her for it interfering with her daily life constantly., and have read up on many techniques to help what limitations she does have. This article was really helpful to see my observations are validated that she is not really being affected by it too much at this point. However, I have contemplated taking her to an OT evaluation to see if there is anything they can give us to work on at home.
Debra Pollard says
i am in the beginning stages of this process with my son. hE PRESENTS WITH MULTIPLE RED FLAGS IN MULTIPLE SENSORY AREAS. hE SEEMS TO HAVE SOME CONTROL OVER HIMSELF UP TO A SPECIFIC THRESHOLD. iT CAN BE ONE EVENT THAT MEETS THE THRESHOLD OR IT CAN BE MULTIPLE EVENTS THROUGHTOUT THE DAY. i HAVE SAUGHT HELP FROM A PEDIATRIC PSYCHOLOGISTS, AND WAS REFFERED TO ot FOR sENSORY ASSESSMENT, BUT THE TESTING WAS SUBJECTIVE. iS THERE SOMEWHERE THAT PERFORMS OBJECTIVE COMPREHENSIVE SENSORY ASSESSMENTS?
Our toddler just started humming out loud couple of days ago and we are quite worried about this. He is starting to do this we go out which is very unlike him before. He just turned 2 yrs in May
What may be the triggers? Could it be watching too much tv?
How can we help him to get over this Humming we are really concerned.
Lisa Justice says
I have a 2 year old grandchild who does this constantly, i wondered what the outcome was.
How is your grand child now? Iam worried for my niece who does the same.
Looking forward for your reply. Regards
Hi- thanks for the article! My 5 year old fidgets with his ears to show emotions a lot. When he’s super excited or angry/frustrated. He is also a very picky eater- doesn’t like to try new things and doesn’t eat much meat (only nuggets). It’s difficult to pack him lunches for school and explain it to teachers who have food day. Any advice? Thanks!
Mate all kids are picky eaters if they had there way they would eat chocolate for breakfast and for dinner it would be cracker so don’t worry to much he will eat meat when his older but a lot of kids prefer sausages.
very helpful! The comments are helpful too because they are focused on a real child’s behavior.
I wish I’d read this page a few years ago. Short, sharp, to the point and hits so many nails on the head. We are well and truly in the sensory world now but it was hard years ago when we were clueless. Thank you for compiling this list. I hope it helps a great many people, as it would have helped us.
My son is 3 years old and still not talking I tried to bath him last night and he started screaming shaking and holding on to me like he was scared to death and he loves bathes and he rocks back in forth a lot eats same tip of foods he dose not show effectiveness and stands on his tip toes sometimes And he likes to listen to YouTube lullaby music baby songs I need help on what’s wrong
Sarah Lopez says
Hi, it sounds to me like your son may be demonstrating signs of autism. Have you had him evaluated by a behavioral therapist or spoken to his pediatrician about your concerns?
Best of luck with your little guy!
Kelly Bourne says
my son is 10
He makes so many noises, i didnt even know their was senory issues. He hums, chews on his cheek and his nails, clicks with a like sucking noise , make squeaky noises and does this sucking thing with his nose ( like hoarking snot) and sucking up snot says blowing his noise is too hard it hurts. Im really glad i found this article im going to talk to his doctor asap and his school, hes been diagnosed with adhd and has a couple learning disabilities hes also has an iep and emprowerment classes. he’s driving me insane with these noises.
Did you find anything out? My 6 year old does many of the same things including the ‘hoarking snot’ as you mentioned. He also sings a lot, and has started making little humming noises. I never would have thought there was anything amiss until the frequent short humming sounds started. Interested to know if you found anything out.
This article is very helpful. My son will be turning 3 soon and is so distracted by lights and sounds. We were in a preschool class today and a light bulb kept flickering and he was so distracted by it. He would get up and play with random things like the curtain blinds, the radio and look at all the things on the walls instead of what the teacher was doing. We will have to pull him out because he is so distracted. Is this sensory processing disorder, vestibular, or something else? He is very bright and knows his alphabet, colors, shapes, can count to 30, has a lot of words, knows the solar system in order and has an amazing memory. He just can’t seem to focus and sit still… and will cover his ears with certain noises. Please. Any advice would be great. Thank you.
Hi, thanks for the great information. My son who is 6 has been, for about the last year or so, doing a lot of singing (making up words to songs he know), constantly talking, but seems sometimes just needs to make some sort of noise at all times. Recently he started making little humming noises when he watches a show, or when he’s laying down to sleep. Over all, not very many symptoms, but could the humming be indicative of more behaviours coming? Or a sign that he could have mild symptoms that are getting ‘worse’ or more frequent? Thanks!
Hello , I live in Africa and it’s quite hard to find a pediatric therapist, my son(9 years) is humming only while watching and he is so attached to watching , how can I help him
Hi there..just come across your page.thank you.
I have a situation where my son (just turned 3) becomes upset at other babies crying.
I have also noticed that he has tantrums at silly things,not all the time maybe once a day if that.
He also sings a lot,but lots of different songs which we have actively encouraged over the last year or so.
His speech and development is great..and he loves interacting with other kids at nursery.
He may have a few SPD disorders..would like an opinion on it too.
If my 2.9 yr old son exhibits some of the red flags mentioned in the article, such as having melt downs and screams during hair cuts, barely knows how to jump but can climb furniture and ladders, is easily distracted and repeats words throughout the day, should I be concerned? He knows how to count to 20, knows colors and shapes and tge ABC’s, and overall seems intelligent, but just has a few things that are nagging me. Is there a check list I can use to determine if he could be autistic?
I haven’t brought up my concerns to my spouse yet as I want to determine if our son is typical, knowing children grow and learn at their own pace or is there reason for concern.
Rowland Lane Anderson says
My six year old boy is in the autism spectrum and fears hand driers etc. but makes very high pitched and very loud screams when he is upset in tantrum mode. Usually this is a reaction to his mother shouting at him. Is something like this common? Is his hearing of high pitched noise different from say hand driers? Could it be a reaction to his mothers loud shouts?
make personality says
One of the perfect and informative site ever. Bookmarked for future read.
how to whistle super loud with your fingers
Hi, thanks so much for this article.
Yesterday my 4 year old son drove me insane with his constant noises, I was so overloaded with overwhelm.
We go back to see his OT next week but I’d love some advice to get me through until then.
These holidays have been great up until now because we’ve always been with others, now I can’t wait for him to go back to preschool but that is still 3 weeks away.
Thank you in advance
jenny jia says
One of the best and my favorite blog ever. Aala stuf and best quality.
substitute for coconut aminos
thanks for making this I’m actually a tween and I do a lot of these things like I’m always constantly singing everywhere I go?!
and I’m almost 12 I will turn 12 on august 13th and I still make weird noises too like it sounds like OooOooOooOooh and groaning/moaning too so i am also adhd and have autism and at school I always am under my desk listening to music or something so I want to know how to stop it?!
Thank you for this article, it is very helpful. I am wondering what system aversion to using the bathroom would fall under? And does taking a really long time to eat fall under a system? I have a student that will take all afternoon to eat her lunch, if given that time.