#301 - Does Your Toddler Have ADHD, SPD or Are They Acting in Typical Toddler Ways?

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC March 26, 2024

#301 - Does Your Toddler Have ADHD, SPD or Are They Acting in Typical Toddler Ways?

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Does Your Toddler Have ADHD, SPD or Are They Acting in Typical Toddler Ways?

Check out our newly re-launched digital course: Early Intervention Blueprint: Sensory and Developmental Milestones for Infants and Toddlers

Designed for new and expecting parents, as well as therapists and professionals working with children ages birth - 4 years. OTs and OTAs - earn 11 CEU contact hours through AOTA with this digital course!

As pediatric therapists, we’re often asked about certain toddler behaviors - Is this ‘normal’? Should I be concerned about _____? Does my toddler have ADHD?

Today, we’re chatting about what is considered ‘normal’ in toddlerhood - what you can expect from your toddler and what are some signs that there might be some underlying challenges.

First, we dive into common things that toddlers go through, like struggling with a new event and pushing back during daily routines.

Then we dive into what it looks like for a toddler to have specific sensory processing challenges and what we might see if a toddler is showing signs of ADHD.

And finally we finish the conversation with what you can do!

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Does Your Toddler Have Adhd, SPD, Or Are They Acting In Typical Toddler Ways?

As parents, encountering unexpected behaviors in our children can often feel overwhelming, prompting concern and speculation about potential underlying issues. In recent years, the spotlight on developmental disorders, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), has grown brighter, heightening our vigilance. 

Yet, distinguishing between the quirks of typical toddler behavior and indicators of a more profound concern remains challenging. How do we discern whether our child's actions are part of growing up or signify something more significant?

Could It Be ADHD? 

ADHD, a neurodevelopmental disorder, impacts millions of children worldwide and often continues into adulthood. Although such behaviors are common in young children, those diagnosed with ADHD exhibit them to an extent that markedly disrupts their day-to-day activities. 

A child with ADHD may experience challenges with:

  • Poor emotional regulation manifests as daily emotional outbursts lasting 30 minutes to an hour or more despite a caregiver's efforts to help co-regulate.
  • Dealing with constant refusals, meltdowns, and significant challenges in completing daily tasks—dressing, using the bathroom, potty training, eating, and bathing. 
  • Remains unable to engage in new activities and routines, even with the support and co-regulation from a trusted caregiver. 
  • Exhibits fear and anxiety, persistently struggling to join in after several attempts, and showing signs of distress, such as having meltdowns before swim classes.
  • Incessant need for movement presents a challenge in managing their physical activity and sleep patterns. 

Is It SPD?  

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a multifaceted condition that influences how individuals perceive and react to sensory stimuli, the signals our brains obtain from our senses. Children with SPD may face difficulties, including:

  • Sensory overload: struggling to process auditory, visual, or tactile input in their environment.
  • Hypersensitivity, often referred to as sensory defensiveness, involves heightened sensitivity to certain stimuli that can cause discomfort or even pain.
  • Hyposensitivity: also known as sensory seeking, these children crave more intense input to feel satisfied.
  • Poor motor coordination may lead to clumsiness and difficulties with fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil or manipulating small objects.
  • Display disruptive behaviors: This can frequently lead to difficulties in their everyday routines.

Typical Toddler Behaviors

ADHD and SPD are genuine conditions that can significantly impact a child's life. However, it's essential to recognize that many behaviors toddlers display are typical.

Common behaviors in young children encompass:

  • Difficulty with transitions: Toddlers may struggle with changes in routines or activities, leading to tantrums or meltdowns.
  • Challenging emotions: Young children are still learning how to regulate their emotions and may display a range of intense reactions, from laughter to tears.
  • Refusal to comply: Asserting independence and testing boundaries is a natural part of toddlerhood, leading to defiance or refusal to follow instructions. 

How Can You Tell the Difference? 

It's vital to remember that each child grows at their rate and may display specific behaviors more often than their peers. Additionally, it's important to consider the context of these behaviors since situational factors significantly influence a child's reactions.

There are specific indicators that suggest your child may require additional evaluation or support:

  • Severity: While all children may exhibit similar behaviors at times, those with ADHD or SPD will display them more frequently and intensely.
  • Persistence: If the behavior continues over an extended period and does not seem to improve with age, it may be a sign of a developmental disorder.
  • Impact on daily functioning: Behaviors associated with ADHD or SPD can significantly disrupt a child's ability to participate in everyday activities, such as attending school or following a routine.
  • Developmental milestones: Keep track of your child's developmental progress and consult their pediatrician if you notice any delays or concerns. 

Criteria For Diagnosing ADHD

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), is the primary tool for medical professionals to diagnose ADHD. To confirm an ADHD diagnosis, six symptoms listed in the DSM-5 criteria must be identified in each of the two main categories: predominantly inattentive and predominantly hyperactive-impulsive. 

Additionally, the following criteria must be met:
  • Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were present before age 12 years.
  • Several symptoms are present in two or more settings (such as at home, school, work, with friends or relatives, or in other activities).
  • There is clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with or reduce the quality of social, school, or work functioning.
  • The symptoms cannot be attributed to another mental disorder like mood, anxiety, dissociative, or personality disorder. They don’t occur solely during schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.

Seeking Support

Should you have concerns regarding your child's behavior, it's crucial to consult a reputable medical professional. They possess the expertise to assess your child and offer advice on subsequent actions, such as therapy or behavioral strategies.

Additionally, you can support your child at home by:

  • Engaging them in everyday activities, setting explicit rules, and fostering open communication can simplify their handling of daily tasks and boost their autonomy.
  • Creating a serene and structured setting that nurtures emotional balance and reduces sensory overload.
  • Promoting activities that enhance self-regulation, like engaging in quiet and physical play.
  • Encourage your child to stay active during their waking hours by engaging in activities such as running, jumping, climbing, and moving around.
  • Using sensory strategies like heavy work, crawling, and oral motor exercises like Z-Vibe, bubble blowing, and making bubble mountains.
  • Improving sleep hygiene and enhancing sleep quality.
  • Integrate more new experiences into your daily routine to get that crucial dopamine surge from exploring the unfamiliar.

Final Thoughts

It's crucial to align your expectations for your child with established developmental milestones. Recognizing the distinction between typical toddler behaviors and those necessitating extra support is vital for effectively advocating for your child's needs.

By nurturing your child with patience, empathy, and unwavering support, you lay the groundwork for a positive and nurturing environment that caters to their unique needs. This approach equips them with the essential skills and confidence required for a prosperous future.









While we make every effort to share correct information, we are still learning. We will double check all of our facts but realize that medicine is a constantly changing science and art. One doctor / therapist may have a different way of doing things from another. We are simply presenting our views and opinions on how to address common sensory challenges, health related difficulties and what we have found to be beneficial that will be as evidenced based as possible. By listening to this podcast, you agree not to use this podcast as medical advice to treat any medical condition in either yourself or your children. Consult your child’s pediatrician/ therapist for any medical issues that he or she may be having. This entire disclaimer also applies to any guests or contributors to the podcast. Under no circumstances shall Rachel Harrington, Harkla, Jessica Hill, or any guests or contributors to the podcast, as well as any employees, associates, or affiliates of Harkla, be responsible for damages arising from use of the podcast.

Keep in mind that we may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. However, this does not impact our reviews and comparisons. We try our best to keep things fair and balanced, in order to help you make the best choice for you.

This podcast should not be used in any legal capacity whatsoever, including but not limited to establishing “standard of care” in a legal sense or as a basis for expert witness testimony. No guarantee is given regarding the accuracy of any statements or opinions made on the podcast.

Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

Rachel Harrington, COTA/l, AC, CPRCS, and Jessica Hill, COTA/L, CPRCS are Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA) and Certified Primitive Reflex Clinical Specialists. They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. They specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica and Rachel are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica and Rachel, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.

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