October 27th, 2008
01:20 PM ET

When should parents ask the experts for help?

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Medical Senior Producer

My son, who’s 4 1/2, just used the bathroom at his after-school class. Big deal, huh? It was, for us. Up to now, using the potty away from home has been too stressful, which leads to a lot of frantic planning on our part. It’s not just that. He’s been high-strung since birth. He stopped taking a nap around his first birthday. He doesn’t like crowds, tenses every muscle when he gets his hair washed – hey, at least he no longer screams non-stop – and he’s extremely hesitant about trying new things, be it a new food, a new lesson at pre-K or a new slide on the playground.

Don’t all 4-year-olds act that way? Some days, that’s what I think. Other days, not so much. My son is bright and gets along with other kids, but he’s a handful. After commiserating with a few other parents, last year we took our son to see a therapist. She told us he might have something called sensory processing disorder. There’s a lot of disagreement over how to define SPD, but basically some children are extremely sensitive to stimuli including noises, tastes, certain feelings on their skin or even all the above. In severe cases, it’s so distracting, the child has trouble functioning at all.

It’s not a well-understood diagnosis, and I was a little skeptical. But we started taking my son to an occupational therapist once a week. After a couple of visits, she told us my son didn’t have SPD, but he did have “sensory issues.” And what do you know, therapy seems to help. He loves the sessions (lots of climbing and games), he’s a lot less anxious, he’s proud about trying new foods and now even the bathroom isn’t too scary. Is it the therapy? Or is he just growing up?

How do you know when it’s time to seek help for your child?

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