Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. It was formerly referred to as Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID).
Children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) sometimes overreact or underreact to touch, sounds, and food textures. It is common in children who have autism but also affects a surprising number of young kids who do not with recent studies showing the condition impacts as many as 5 to 10 percent of kids.
Others with Sensory Processing Disorder may:
- Be uncoordinated
- Bump into things
- Be unable to tell where their limbs are in space
- Be hard to engage in conversation or play
Learn how to spot the symptoms of SPD to get your child evaluated properly.
Causes of SPD
The causes of SPD are likely to be the result of factors that are both Genetic and Environmental.
- Preliminary research suggests that SPD is often inherited
- Prenatal and Birth complications have also been implicated
- Environmental factors may be involved. E.g. Adopted kids who have been restricted in all areas of their development.
- Birth risk factors also cause SPD – low birth weight, prematurity, etc.
SPD affects the way a child processes messages sent to his brain from any of the five main senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. He might have mild sensory intolerances or he might find it extremely difficult to handle sensory stimulation.
Normally, if a child is tapped on the shoulder, his nervous system informs his brain that he received a light touch; for a child with SPD, the message can get misinterpreted and the child may feel that he was hit hard. Or the message may get completely lost, leaving him unaware that he has been touched at all. He may also recoil from the textures of certain foods and others seem unresponsive to anything around them. They may fail to respond to extreme heat or cold or even pain.
Most kids with SPD are a mixture of both over- and under-sensitive, which explains why inconsistent behavior is a hallmark of the disorder.
Two lesser-known senses that can be affected by SPD are the Vestibular and Proprioceptive systems. They detect incoming sensory information, which is then delivered to the brain.
Vestibular refers to movement sensations such as swinging or going down a slide.
The Proprioceptive system provides information to the muscles and joints, e.g. telling the legs to apply more pressure when walking up stairs than when walking on flat ground. If messages from the proprioceptive system get confused in the brain, a child might appear to be excessively clumsy or aggressive because he is not aware of how much force he is applying.
Continuously receiving jumbled messages can be frustrating for a child, and his inexplicable reactions to everyday happenings can be confusing to his parents. His behavior can become even more unpredictable when he is asked to transition from one activity to another.
When a child’s nervous system is working so poorly, it can take him a long time to focus and settle into what he is doing. Every child can have trouble shifting gears sometimes, but it is the number of senses affected and the severity of symptoms that will determine whether a child is considered to have SPD.
As it is with autism, these symptoms occur on a spectrum: If a child’s sensory needs are intense and persistent, everyday activities that are necessary for social, emotional, and educational growth might be difficult for him. This has repercussions down the line. For example, your child might not like the sensation of Play-Doh in his hands, this to you as a parent may not seem important, but manipulating squishy objects is one way kids develop the muscles and coordination to accomplish skills that will be necessary later. A child who avoids using his hands in these developmental years may later have difficulty holding or maneuvering a pencil.
Common Signs of Sensory Processing Problems
- Out-of-proportion reactions to touch, sounds, sights, movement, tastes, or smells, including:
- Bothered by clothing fabrics, labels, tags, etc.
- Distressed by light touch or unexpected touch
- Dislikes getting messy
- Resists grooming activities
- Very sensitive to sounds (volume or frequency)
- Squints, blinks, or rubs eyes frequently
- Bothered by lights or patterns
- High activity level or very sedentary
- Unusually high or low pain threshold
- Motor skill and Body Awareness difficulties, including:
- Fine motor delays (e.g., crayons, buttons/snaps, beading, scissors)
- Gross motor delays (e.g., walking, running, climbing stairs, catching a ball )
- Illegible handwriting
- Moves awkwardly or seems clumsy
- Low or high muscle tone
- Oral motor and feeding problems, including:
- Oral hypersensitivity
- Frequent drooling or gagging
- “Picky eating”
- Speech and language delays
- Poor attention and focus: often “tunes out” or “acts up”
- Uncomfortable/easily overstimulated: especially in group settings
- Difficulty with self-confidence and independence
Treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder
Many families with an affected child find that it is hard to get help. That’s because Sensory Processing Disorder isn’t a recognized medical diagnosis at this time.
Despite the lack of widely accepted diagnostic criteria, Occupational Therapists commonly see and treat children and adults (yes, SPD affects adults as well) with sensory processing problems.
Treatment depends on a child’s individual needs. But in general, it involves helping children do better at activities they are normally not good at and helping them get used to things they can’t tolerate. The treatment is called Sensory Integration. The goal of Sensory Integration is to challenge a child in a fun, playful way so he or she can learn to respond appropriately and function more normally.
Another type of treatment is called the Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-based (DIR) model. A major part of this therapy is the “floor-time” method. The method involves multiple sessions of play with the child and parent.
These treatments provide an opportunity for the child to master important skills in areas such as:
As a Parent, we are imploring you to take some time to explore more on these “behaviors” and to find the reasons why this apparent “chaos” actually makes perfect sense.
And we hope you will finally begin to understand – or further understand, why your child does the things he/she does.
To Caregivers, Teachers, and anyone coming in contact with a child, please take this information and positively influence, understand, validate, “treat”, support, and help children who are behaviorally and emotionally “imprisoned” by their ineffective perception and interpretation of sensory input.
Remember, Together WE CAN MAKE AN IMPACT.