What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) used to be called Sensory Integration (DSI) Dysfunction. It causes sensory signals to not get organized into appropriate motor responses and behaviors when the sensory messages are received by the nervous system. In other words, the sensory messages are misinterpreted by the nervous system.
A study done by the SPD Foundation found that 5% to 10% of children without other disabilities experience SPD while it is prevalent in 40% to 88% of children with various other disabilities. It is believed that there may be a relationship between Sensory Processing Disorder and the atypical behaviors associated with pervasive developmental disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Fragile X Syndrome, and Cerebral Palsy.
The study also found that while symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder overlap with other conditions, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in particular, the empirical data in the study proves that the two conditions are completely distinct from each other.
Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) p. 249 – 250 by Lucy Jane Miller, PhD, OTR lists ten research-supported statements about SPD:
- It is a complex disorder of the brain affecting both adults and developing children.
- Tools used to identify children with the disorder include: parent surveys, clinical assessments, and laboratory protocols.
- The prevalence of SPD in the general population is at least 1 in 20 people.
- The occurrence of SPD in children who are gifted and those with ADHD, Autism, and fragile X syndrome is much higher than that of the rest of the general population.
- A significant difference has been found between the physiology of typically developing children and those with SPD.
- Likewise, a significant difference has ben found between the physiology of children with ADHD and those with SPD.
- The disorder has unique sensory symptoms unexplained by other known disorders.
- Heredity could be one cause of the disorder.
- The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems of children with SPD are not functioning typically, according to laboratory studies.
- The theory that Occupational Therapy is an effective intervention for treating SPD symptoms is supported by preliminary research data and decades of anecdotal evidence.
Symptoms of SPD
Much like other developmental disabilities, the symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder vary from person to person, as well as age group. A person may experience only some symptoms and at varying intensities. Additionally, symptoms tend to vary by age group:
Infants & Toddlers:
- Difficulty eating
- Refusal to go to people other than parents
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Discomfort in clothing
- Lack of toy play
- Difficulty shifting from one activity to another (Resistance to change)
- Slow to respond to pain or injury
- Resistant to physical affection or cuddling
- Unable to calm self with pacifier, toys, etc.
- Poor balance or clumsiness
- Little or no babbling or vocalizing
- Easily startled
- Extremely active (constantly moving)
- Delays crawling, standing, walking or running
- Difficulty potty training
- Overreacts or overly sensitive to stimulation (touch, nose, smells, tastes, etc.)
- Unaware of being touched or bumped
- Difficulty with fine motor skills (fastening buttons, using crayons, eating with utensils, etc.)
- Clumsy and awkward (unsure how to move body in relation to space)
- In constant motion
- Touches everything around them
- Gets in other people’s personal space
- Difficulty making friends
- Overly aggressive or passive and withdrawn
- Difficulty with transition
- Difficult to calm, intense
- Unexpected temper tantrums or mood changes
- Seems inappropriately weak, slumps or slouches
- Speech is difficult to understand
- Difficulty understanding verbal instructions
- Overly sensitive to stimulation (touch, noise, smells, taste, etc.)
- Easily distracted in the classroom
- Fidgety or squirmy, in constant motion
- Easily overwhelmed in social settings (Recess, playground, classroom, etc.)
- Slow to perform tasks
- Difficulty with motor tasks (handwriting, tying shoes, etc.)
- Clumsy, stumbles often, slouches
- Craves wrestling and rough housing
- Slow to learn new activities
- Difficulty making friends (overly aggressive or passive/withdrawn)
- Hyper-focuses on one task, difficulty transitioning
- Confuses similar sounding words (misinterprets questions/requests)
- Difficulty reading (especially out loud)
- Stumbles with words, speech lacks fluency, hesitant rhythm
Adolescence & Adulthood:
- Over-sensitive to environmental stimulation (not liking to be touched)
- Avoids visually stimulating environments and/or sensitivity to sounds
- Slow and/or lethargic starting the day
- Often begins new tasks at one time and leaves many unfinished
- Uses inappropriate amount of force handling objects
- Clumsy, bumps into things, unexplained bruises
- Difficulty learning new motor tasks or sequencing steps of a task
- Needs physical activities to help maintain focus throughout the day
- Difficulty staying focused at work or in meetings
- Requires more clarification than usual, misinterprets questions and requests
- Difficulty reading, especially out loud
- Stumbles over words, speech lacks fluency
- Must read material multiple times to absorb the content
- Difficulty forming thoughts and ideas in oral presentations
Diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder
SPD identification typically starts with a screening by an Occupational Therapist. In my son’s case, his pediatrician referred us to the Occupational Therapist due to his delayed motor skills. I sat in the lobby and filled out the parent checklist while the therapist evaluated my son.
She was able to tell me that day that he certainly had sensitivities to audio and tactile sensory input. Of course, she would need to review the results of her evaluation and would be in touch. Her highly detailed 9 page report on the results confirmed SPD. We started occupational therapy immediately.
Sometimes the evaluation may warrant additional evaluations. But often times, the Occupational Therapist is able to make the determination using standardized assessment tools. These tools often include:
- Bruinlinks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency – Second Edition
- Goal Oriented Assessment of Life Skills (GOAL)
- Miller Assessment for Preschoolers (MAP)
- Miller Function and Participation Scales (MFUN)
- Movement Assessment Battery for Children – Second Edition (Movement ABC-2)
- Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT)
As with Autism and ADHD, early intervention is important with SPD. The symptoms of the disorder are not manageable by the child, the parents, the teachers, or anybody else alone. Children often come across as different, weird, or awkward as a result.
Unfortunately, most children are not taught that everybody is unique and that they shouldn’t judge those that are different. As a result, children with disabilities such as SPD, Autism, ADHD, etc. tend to be made fun of or negatively labeled as difficult, problem children or badly behaved children.
These negative labels placed on children does cause years of suffering needlessly, exacerbates their already low self-confidence and self-esteem which steers them further and further down the rabbit hole. Labels such as hyper, weird, aggressive, withdrawn, and different only adds to the child’s feelings of failure from not being able to do what other kids can do effortlessly (such as tying their shoes or riding a bike).
By getting an accurate diagnosis and beginning early intervention, we can provide the correct labeling for their “unusual” behaviors and help to stop the undeserved judging, stereotyping, and punishing of behaviors that they are simply unable to control.
We are able to help these children gain understanding and empathy from people and all around better treatment by giving them a positive label that identifies that the behaviors are due to an undesired and uninvited neurological condition. It’s not the child’s fault, and it’s not the parent’s fault.
Early intervention also allows treatment to begin early on in life, while the child’s brain is still developing. This lessons the impact of the disorder on the child later on in life. It allows both the parents and the child to understand certain behaviors so that they can learn appropriate coping skills and reduce the stress caused by such behaviors.
If you have a child that seems to be displaying one or more of these symptoms, talk to your child’s pediatrician quickly. Early diagnosis and intervention will help get your baby understand what is happening with them and why they are sensational. If you have children that don’t have these symptoms, please educate your child on invisible disabilities and teach them to be accepting and understanding of those different than the norm.
Lastly, don’t be so quick to dismiss labels on children. Remember that there is a huge difference between negative labels and medical labels. The medical diagnosis that you might consider a label just might be the exact thing a child needs in order to get the help that they deserve.
If you’d like to help me raise some awareness on these “invisible” conditions that are often largely misunderstood, please hit share and get the word out.