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Sensory Processing Disorders Disguised as Picky Eating

By April 8, 2016February 5th, 2023Brain Health, Nutrition
sensory processing disorders disguised as picky eating

Is your “picky eater” actually suffering from a sensory processing disorder?  Sensory processing disorders are often overlooked, or mistakenly labeled as a symptom of a behavioral disorder, instead of being seen as a clue to the underlying cause of a child’s behavior.

Do you ever stop to think about how your body takes in information?  You’re familiar with taste, touch, hearing and sight, which give information to your brain in order to allow you to identify these sensations.  Much of this process is unconscious and instantaneous, so we don’t give it a second thought.

Why Sensory Processing Disorders Cause Picky Eating

Sometimes, sensory signals aren’t processed smoothly.  A person’s sensory system can be overloaded or underactive.  In a child, the discomfort in the body from a sensory processing disorder can result in outward behavioral issues.  It’s possible that a child’s diagnosis of ADHD may be the result of an UNDER functioning sensory system. Seems counter-intuitive, right?  You see, because the child’s body is in a “state” of low sensory signals, hyperactive behavior is a child’s unconscious way of creating the stimulation they cannot feel.  The body constantly strives to achieve a balanced state, or homeostasis, which is why an under functioning sensory system results in excessive behavior.

On the other end of the spectrum, an overloaded sensory system makes a person shut down.  This is where picky eating can show up as a symptom of sensory processing disorders.  Certain textures or tastes can overtax a child’s senses.  The discomfort gives them no choice but to refuse certain foods and only desire foods that do not overtax their senses.

Of course picky eating can be a purely behavioral issue.  The child becomes “labeled” as a picky eater and every meal becomes a power play, further ingraining the habit of picky eating and creating a vicious cycle.

Picky eating is not the only symptom of sensory processing disorders.  Digestive disorders, disrupted language skills and inability to focus can all be symptoms.  You can see why children are often misdiagnosed with ADD/ADHD and other disorders as a result.

Help and Hope for Sensory Processing Disorders

As complex as all this sounds, there is hope and help to be found.  If you think your “picky eater” may really be experiencing a sensory processing disorder, there are steps to take.  The most overlooked part is to identify a sensory processing issue as a problem in the first place.  This allows you to address the underlying cause of your child’s picky eating.  In addition to psychiatrists, psychologists and pediatricians, there are professionals who specialize in diagnosing sensory processing disorders, most often occupational therapists.  They perform tests to determine whether sensory processing disorders are contributing to a child’s picky eating and other behaviors.

If sensory processing disorders are found, know that they are treatable!  Practitioners engage children in activities that “re-wire” brain pathways and patterns.  Most importantly, once armed with the knowledge of a disorder, parents can work with the practitioner to create new brain patterns at home, where children spend most of their time, and work with teachers at school to generate awareness.


Photo copyright: bialasiewicz / 123RF Stock Photo

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