Sensory Processing Disorder - What is it? Does my child have it?

What is Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD for short) is a condition where the brain and the nervous system have an issue when processing (or integrating) some stimulus.

SPD, which was formally called Sensory Integration Disorder, is a neurophysiological condition. The sensory input to the body from the surrounding environment is poorly detected or interpreted by the brain and nervous system.

As an example, for someone who has SPD, processing the feeling of hot or cold, hungry, tired and even sound and lights, can be overwhelming and challenging.

This processing of sensory input could evoke an irregular response such as the registering of temperature may cause the person to not dress in an appropriate manner. Think t-shirt and shorts in cold weather - this could even prove life threatening it taken to the extreme.

SPD can affect just one of the senses or it can affect all of the senses. It could just cause a slight irritation; such as tags in clothes could cause issue with someone who has the condition. Alternatively, it could cause major problems such as certain lighting could be unbearable. It could be certain smells make someone feel incredibly ill.

A person with SPD can not control how their body interpenetrates the stimulus an so can cause them to feel irritation and even pain.

The final think I want to mention in this section. We've talked about SPD and how it can cause over-responsivity. So, irritation to certain stimulus. On the flip side, it can cause under-responsivity to stimulus. So, the example of wearing in appropriate clothing in the winter or cold weather.

You may also find that someone with SPD may require particular sensory input to help them self-regulate - for example, if the have ASD and require the sensory input to self-regulate them before having a meltdown.

In these cases you may find them to be sensory seeking.

Symptoms of SPD

The following are common factors, symptoms that can be associated with SPD.

SPD can show up as over or under responsive. From the list below, they give a little more detail and context to this statement.

  1. Intolerance to certain clothing and textures
  2. Food textures, smell, taste and colours causing extreme responses
  3. Intolerance to certain or loud noises
  4. Difficulty with change or transitions
  5. Difficulty using fine motor skills
  6. Clumsiness: bumping into things or people

Intolerance to certain clothing and textures

You may have experienced this yourself, we don't have to have a diagnosis of SPD to have certain materials feel uncomfortable on you. However, some that have been diagnosed with SPD can not stand how some clothing feels on their body.

It maybe the fabric. It maybe the tags in the clothes. It could even been the style of clothes. For those that have this intolerance to certain clothing; steps are required to help.

If it's clothing tags that are the issue then they would need to be cut out. If its a particular material; then no clothing of that material should be in their wardrobe. If it's certain styles of clothing then a more simple, less seams style of clothing may rectify the issue.

Some thought to clothing for those with SPD that have this intolerance can go a long way to making their lives more at ease - at least as far as the clothing goes.

Food textures, smell, taste and colours causing extreme responses

This is something I have seen and experienced. At the time of writing this article my son has a negative response to some foods.

We've found this to be changing; for example recently it was chocolate - but now he is back to liking.

The response can be link to the smell of the food, the texture of the food or the taste of the food. I've seen an example of all 3 of these personally. You may find that any of these 3 may cause something like a gagging/feeling sick effect.

Simply touching or smelling the food could cause someone diagnosed with SPD to feel physically sick. It could even been foods of a particular colour that could cause an extreme response.

Once you know what food items cause these sensory processing issues; stay clear of serving them up. Steering clear will help - though new foods could be an issue as you go forwards. Just keep your diary of undesirable foods up to date.

Sensory Processing Disorder, Children and Intolerance to certain or loud noises

Another common SPD issue is with noise. Noises can be soothing and they can also been disturbing and scary.

For example, some children diagnosed with SPD get distressed at the sound of a vacuum cleaner. Some may get scared or disturbed at the sound of a siren or even a baby crying.

This is another area where we have some experience. Our son who is diagnosed with Autism or ADHD and Sensory Processing can become very distressed by the sound of vacuums and baby crying.

More items we found disturbing to him are things such as the hand dryers in mens rooms and even some coffee machines in cafes.

Loud noises can scare or disturb most of use at times, especially when a loud noise is unexpected. For someone diagnosed with SPD - this scared or disturbing feeling can happen all the time when certain noises occur for them.

Sensory Processing Disorder, Children and Difficulty with change or transitions

Change can be hard for most of us. You maybe have experiened this many times, such as changes to a different soap, food or even something like different blinds or furniture.

We can often get attached to items and have difficulty with change.

Some someone with SPD any change, however minor, can be overwhelming for them.

We all need time to transition from one activity to another or when we move around the house from one room to another. For someone with SPD, this can prove tricky. A child with SPD, for example, may have difficulty switching from one game to another.

Some other examples could be, when they switch classrooms at the end of each year. Maybe your local mall or shop has had a revamp and things have moved around. Even the most simple changes can prove overwhelming.

These changes can cause a meltdown for someone with SPD - something we've also experienced first hand.

Sensory Processing Disorder, Children and Difficulty with fine motor skills

Although this is not just related to SPD; people without this condition can have difficulty with fine motor skills too; some diagnosed can have difficulties with these.

This could include things like using crayons or pens, putting small clothing on dolls, or using buttons on clothing for themselves.

Sensory Disorder, Children and Clumsiness

Again, this is not just related to some diagnosed with SPD, anyone can be clumsy. However, those diagnosed with SPD can sometimes have difficulty knowing where their own bodies are in space.

Sensory Processing Disorder can cause the environment to overwhelm a child

They can also be overwhelmed by their environment causing them to “not see” furniture or people around them.

Causes of SPD

Currently, at least at the time of writing this article, the exact cause of SPD and other sensory processing problems has not been identified.

There have been some studies in the past years of which some have found that hypersensitivity to light and sound may have a strong genetic component.

Other experiments have shown that children with sensory processing problems have abnormal brain activity when they are simultaneously exposed to light and sound.

Still other experiments have shown that children with sensory processing problems will continue to respond strongly to a stroke on the hand or a loud sound, while other children quickly get used to the sensations.

All these experiments aside, the exact cause is still not known. Fixating on the cause of SPD, for an individual who is diagnosed with sensory issues is not a key factor. What is, is making sure they have all the support they need when they have problems processing sensory input.

We often spend to much time on the why and not enough in the now.

Treatment for SPD

Yes, there are many ways to treat SPD, and the trick is to find the right one – or combination of different ones – to help your child. Treatment also depends on a child's individual needs.

Often, many families with a child that has sensory processing problems can find that it is hard to get help. That's because SPD isn't a recognized medical diagnosis at this time.

Despite this lack of widely accepted diagnostic criteria, occupational therapists (OT's) commonly see and treat children and adults with sensory processing problems.

The treatment for sensory processing problems is called sensory integration. The focus of sensory integration is to challenge a child in fun, playful ways so that they can learn to respond appropriately and function more normally.

Treatment depends on a child's individual needs. But in general, it involves helping children do better at activities they're normally not good at and helping them get used to things they can't tolerate.

For example, one type of therapy used is called the Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-based (DIR) model. The therapy was developed by Stanley Greenspan, MD, and Serena Wieder, PhD.

A major part of this therapy is called the "floor-time" method. This involves multiple sessions of play with the child and parent, each lasting around 20 minutes.

During these sessions, the parents are first asked to follow the child’s lead, similar to when starting to learn to communicate and play with a child diagnosed with Autism. This method, in both cases of SPD and Autism alike, allows the parent to engage and enter into the world of the child.

The second phase of this method is used for the parent to use the play sessions to create challenges for the child. The challenges help pull the child into what Greenspan calls a "shared" world with the parent. These challenges create opportunities for the child to learn and master important skills such as:

  • Relating
  • Communication
  • Thinkin

These session are always tailed to the child’s needs as no 2 children have the same sensory needs.

How can you help children and adults with a Sensory Disorder?

If you have a child that has been diagnosed with SPD, is there anything you can do to help them with any sensory processing issues?

The truth is, there seems to be a lack of things you can do to help, but I did find the following information that gives some things to think on:

Parenting a child with sensory processing issues is no easy task. Your child may be inflexible or bossy. She may be unable to control her behavior at all. Yet there are ways you can support your child and make life easier for both of you. Here are some ideas to try.

Learn as much as you can. Understanding the signs of sensory processing issues is a great first step. You can also learn about treatment and therapies for sensory processing issues.

Keep track of your child’s behavior issues. Knowing the patterns can help you anticipate tough situations for your child.

Provide safe and appropriate outlets. Help your child learn what things are “safe” to touch. Provide places where she can go to feel safe yet included in play with peers or siblings. You can also coach her on ways to “escape” situations before things get out of hand.

Use your knowledge to avoid sticky situations. For example, if noisy toys and machines cause your child anxiety, ask your other kids not to play with loud instruments and toys around her. And be mindful about firing up the lawnmower and running the vacuum cleaner.

SPD In Conclusion

There is often a relationship made between SPD and Autism. It is true that many people diagnosed with Autism or ADHD will also have greater sensory needs; a need to have or seek to have lots of sensory input.

Sensory Processing Disorder can also be diagnosed in children who do not have Autism. 

When working with people who have SPD we need to be mindful of the things we do. We need to think first to ensure we don’t turn on machines that make noises to scare them or create something with a smell or taste that may make them feel ill.

With guides in place, SPD is something that can be managed - we just need to give a little help.

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