How to share sensory challenges in toddlers

Adam was an exceedingly polite, involved and happy preschooler in all regards but one. He had a dietary range that allowed for ingesting only homemade chicken nuggets and cheese puffs. But, being such a polite little guy, he’d almost put his tongue to the cupcake brought to class for a birthday celebration declaring it, “Yum!,” before dumping it in the garbage. He’d bring the carrot stick just about to his lips and announce it, “So good!” before slipping it in his napkin.

Tasting was a sensory challenge for Adam. His self-restricted diet exasperated his parents and concerned school staff, but at least he was always polite about it! Toddlers can have sensory challenges in one or more of the five senses. Such challenges, if ongoing and severe, are designated as a Sensory Processing Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

However, sensory challenges in your toddler may also just be a phase as she not-so-efficiently explores her environment. When a child has trouble efficiently integrating incoming information from the physical world, she copes by decreasing the threat–like Adam and taste–or often reacts in fear, through tantrums or running away.

Sensory Challenges

Certain conditions or disorders are associated with sensory challenges; toddlers on the Autism spectrum invariably experience sensory issues. For little ones dealing with Attention Deficit Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, sensory overload is part and parcel of their daily attempts to interact with their environment. However, toddlers without any officially diagnosed condition can also go through a period of unsettled response to certain sensory input activities. In all respects, toddlers are coming to terms with an irresistible, but still-often overpowering world. Developing coping strategies to deal with sensory overload is an important function of your toddler’s preschool years.

Touch and Smell

Adults with Aspergers who’ve grown up tackling sensory issues often describe a slight pat on the hand from a friend as feeling like their flesh is being ripped off in a vicious bear attack. For toddlers dealing with genetic disorders causing sensory issues, touch and smell are often out of kilter. Unable to integrate environmental information received by these senses in a reasonable manner, they exhibit coping strategies–like avoiding touch, or the fish market. As a parent with a toddler subject to a touch or smell overload, you can best help your child come to terms with the world through small-step desensitization.

For instance, your toddler’s petrified of tooth brushing. Instead of using the toothbrush, softly rub his gums and teeth with your baby finger. When he is comfortable with that step, add a little toothpaste to your finger. Then, using a small, round toothbrush, barely touch his teeth. When you can stroke his gums and teeth with the brush, you can proudly turn the toothbrush over to your toddler for independent brushing without fear.

Visual and Auditory

Imagine walking into a room with 10 televisions going full blast. To a toddler still developing neural pathways to filter incoming sound, just one TV can be challenging. As a parent, watch for any patterns of visual or auditory overload in your toddler. If his reaction is ongoing and extreme, devise a small-step desensitization program for him. For example, Logan was terrified to use the toilet. From the bowl with disappearing water to the growl of the flush, the whole experience overloaded him visually and auditorily.

His parents devised a small-step strategy to help desensitize him. They set up a reward system and introduced him to step one: flush the toilet and run like mad out of the bathroom! He received a chocolate chip for his bravery. When flushing the toilet no longer posed a threat to him, they had him open and close the lid and flush. And so went the small steps until he’d regularly use the toilet fearlessly.


Taste issues can be the most worrisome for parents. When your toddler restricts her diet to peanut butter cookies, health problems might result. Taste issues can have myriad causes. Taste is tied in with smell. Sometimes illness–like a massive head cold–dulls the sense of smell, and food loses taste. Autistic children often experience loss of taste. Whether genetic or illness-induced, your toddler will crave extra spicy or salty foods. On the other hand, internist and award-winning wellness author Dr. Michael Roizen reports that taste buds can vary from one person to another by thousands, directly affecting which foods taste good.

Taste can even vary from meal to meal. Adam’s family finally devised a small-step strategy to help him develop a more balanced diet. Every other day he was required (with a reward preset) to take three bites of a new food. The three bites could be miniscule, but he needed to actually swallow them. Eventually he found other foods that were not revolting. It took months, and lots of parental patience. The key was consistently helping Adam to explore new flavors. He’s still a picky eater, but with vitamins as a daily supplement, his folks are confident he won’t end up with rickets!

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