How Can I Tell the Difference Between Sensory Issues and Other Childhood Disorders in My Child?

By Teresa Currivan, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Parent Coach

Sensory processing issues can be misunderstood and misdiagnosed as a number of things, most commonly ADHD and anxiety disorders. In my opinion it is necessary to rule out any sensory issues or address them as thoroughly as possible before considering other diagnoses.

Does your child seem agitated and is he agitating to be around? Or conversely, does she avoid being with others, and seem to shut down when she would really like to connect? Usually our kids want to do things right — to listen, sit still, control their impulses, be a member of the group — but sometimes they’re unable to. This can be frustrating for children, especially when they are blamed for such behavior.

In my practice, I see many kids like this. They appear to have signs of ADHD, but it could be something entirely different. Some of the behaviors may be part of these children’s hardwiring, but the sudden outbursts, the inability to control impulses, or the intolerance of any noise in the room could indicate sensory processing issues. I highly recommend getting children checked for sensory issues before anything else. (If they do have ADHD, for example, it’s best to clear out sensory issues to accurately get help for the ADHD. If they have anxiety, you may see that cut down by thoroughly addressing the sensory issues.) 

Sensory processing issues are often misunderstood. They have more to do with how the brain processes the senses rather than the senses themselves. Children with sensory processing issues can be either sensory seekers or sensory avoiders. For example, a child may make loud sounds in order to hear the reverberation in her head that she is craving because her brain has not registered certain pitches of sound. Alternatively, a child might find the seams in her socks are intolerable because her brain is receiving too much stimulation. Both of these could be going on within the same child.

To further complicate things, standard testing of visual and hearing exams won’t necessarily indicate problems. In fact, visual and auditory issues are often missed. Most exams for vision and hearing at schools and in the doctor’s office do not test for deeper visual and auditory issues.

If sensory issues are found, addressing these issues with appropriate therapies as thoroughly as possible is important. I find integrative therapies to be quicker and more effective than occupational therapy. Vision therapy is quite effective when followed through and done regularly. I have seen a child who was very resistant to vision therapy (because it made him nauseous) suddenly become more open to it, and advance significantly after addressing his vestibular issues first.* The correct sensory therapies will reconnect wiring in the brain that is out of balance, solving the problem at its core. Only once that’s done can you or a professional see more clearly if there are other issues. (A child cannot receive tutoring for dyslexia while there are unresolved vision issues – that is like teaching a child to run without first mending their broken leg.) 

An example is Jane (name has been changed). She seems jumpy, has difficulty reading, and tends to lack an appropriate “space bubble” around her, (she gets a little too close to friends and knocks things over accidentally). She consistently tested as having 20/20 vision, but through testing with a certified developmental optometrist, it was discovered that she has esotropia (one eye turned in at times) and tracking issues (had a difficult time finding words on a page when looking from left to right). Once her issues were identified and she received vision therapy, she was able to control herself. Her mother reported that she was “so much more grounded”. While she may still have ADHD, she appears much less agitated and has her self-esteem back because she’s no longer agitating to others!

Another child, Dennis, was very loud at inappropriate times, seemed agitated internally, especially in noisy environments, and was annoying to others around him. At times he requested to be in a room by himself; at others, he joined the group but became loud and aggressive. Similarly, his mom reported that he would begin yelling when a blender or vacuum was turned on. The paradox is that he may have been yelling to match the noise he perceived in order to tolerate it: he yelled as a coping mechanism to the overwhelm the loud noise makes him feel. While he was thought to have a problem with his ears, he tested as having good hearing. After proper testing, it turned out Dennis had CAPD (Central Auditory Processing Disorder), which made him unable to filter noises properly. He heard far away noises as if they were close up, and unless he was looking at her lips, he didn’t hear his mother standing directly in front of him. His brain needed to be retrained to hear appropriately. After completing auditory therapy, he became more grounded, no longer shouting at odd times. Now, when his mother talks to him and he “doesn’t hear,” he jokes, “oh, now I hear you, I was just ignoring you.”  At least now it is his choice and he’s kept his sense of humor.

An important point to make here is that these therapies can be intense for some kids and can temporarily exacerbate behaviors.  At one point, Dennis stopped auditory therapy because he was very resistant to it. At about the same time his challenging behavior escalated. I urged the parent to continue the therapy, but with someone who knew how to regulate it according to what he could tolerate, and who could help balance his system while he was going through it. 

As a parent of a 2e child, I know that all of the therapies and diagnoses can be overwhelming. While we want the best for our children, many of our brains and budgets are overstretched.  As someone who has been trained to diagnose children in the mental health setting, I know that sensory issues can look like any number of pathologies to professionals. I urge parents to look into sensory issues before accepting a diagnosis of ADHD or anxiety first and foremost. Considering and addressing sensory issues, rather than being an additional step, can actually solve many behavioral issues more efficiently and properly than more common treatments. It may lead to a more grounded, peaceful child who can manage his world. It may even make your world more manageable.

Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, school therapist, leads gifted parent support groups, and coaches parents by phone at Help My Child Thrive Coaching. Teresa has been published on sites such as, Filter Free Parents, and is a blogger at GHF and Hoagies Education. She specializes in giftedness, twice exceptionality,  educational fit, and family dynamics, as well as gifted adults. She lives in the San Francisco, California Bay Area with her husband and son. You can find more articles on this website. Follow her on her Facebook at

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Some other things impacting your child’s behavior may be school fit, proper testing, and/or learning style. Read these to find out more:


What Is a Visual-Spatial Learner?



How to Obtain Proper Testing for the Gifted Underachiever


© 2017 Teresa Currivan