Sensory Processing Disorder: What is it? What are the symptoms, treatments and does my child exhibit any signs? Take the mini quiz!

 

“Sometimes the noise in my life bothers me. It hurts my ears.” These are common things people with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Sensory Integration Disorder tend to say when describing what is happening to them. Find out more about what is sensory processing disorder, its signs, symptoms, treatments and take a mini quiz on different signs of over responsive sensory processing disorder.

Sensory integration disorder

Sensory processing disorder

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder or sensory integration disorder is a condition in which the brain has difficulty receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Some experts like A. Jean Ayres, PhD, linked SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents the brain from receiving signals or information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. Whether if you are biting into your favorite New York style pizza, driving a car, or simply texting, the completion of the activity requires precise processing of sensation and attention.

Sensory processing disorder may affect one or more of the senses like hearing, touch (tactile), smell or taste, movement (vestibular) and body awareness (proprioceptive sense). Some children may even seem unresponsive to the things they have difficulties with. For example, the sounds of a lawn mower may cause a child to experience headaches, then nausea, dizziness, confusion, trembling or panic. They may scream when touched or shy away from certain textures of foods. However, others may also seem unresponsive to anything around them. They may fail to respond to extreme heat, cold or even pain. This is very common among children with autism.

Sensory Processing Disorder- Symptoms 

Symptoms may range from mild to severe. Common symptoms include:

  • Hypersensitivity: Hypersensitive (or oversensitive) children may notice sounds that others do not, or have an extreme response to loud noises. They may be fearful of large crowds, unwilling to play on playground equipment or worried about their safety (falling).
  • Hypo-sensitive: Hypo-sensitive (or under sensitive) children, as mentioned above, may lack sensitivity to their surroundings. For example, because they might have a high tolerance for pain, they are known to be “sensory seeking” meaning they have a constant need to touch people or things, even when it’s not appropriate. Some may be gustatory/oral seeking (crave certain textures and flavors excessively), olfactory seeking (crave certain smells excessively), auditory seeking (often speak louder than necessary), and visual seeking (crave bright lights). 

Often, children with sensory processing disorder show signs of both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. They may reach in one of both ways:

  • Extreme response to change in environment: Kids may be fine in settings they are familiar with, however, in crowded environments like a wedding, they may experience a sensory meltdown such as throwing a tantrum and screaming.
  • Fleeing from stimulation: children who are undersensitive might get a fight or flight response from something that is too stimulating. For example, if a child flees from a playground or parking lot, oblivious to the danger, this indicates they may be heading away from something upsetting.

Sensory Processing Disorder-Skills Affected

  • Resistance to change and inattention: they may be struggling with adapting to change and new surroundings. Some cognitive skills might be affected by this.
  • Problems with motor skills: the child may seem awkward and clumsy, an activity such as running or jumping may be hard for kids who may have difficulty knowing the orientation of their body. They may either move slowly or avoid activities they find challenging.
  • Lack social skills: oversensitive kids will most likely get anxious around other children and will avoid playing, making it hard for the child to be socially friendly. Under sensitive kids also lack social skills because they may be too rough which in turn may lead other kids to avoid them and exclude them from activities.

Sensory Processing Disorder-Diagnosis and Causes

There have been many assumptions and speculations about the causes of sensory processing disorder or sensory integration disorder; nothing concrete has been identified just yet. However, many researchers say some causes of SPD could be:

  • Coded into the child’s genetic material
  • Prenatal and birth complications (low birth weight or prematurity, etc.)
  • Environmental factors (an adopted child who was might have had poor prenatal care)

Sensory processing disorder has yet to be classified as an illness in the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), which is often used by psychiatrists and many other clinical professionals such as pediatricians and psychologists in diagnosis. However, it is identified as part of the assessment in the Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood-Revised in the first clinical axis. Sensory processing disorder was first identified by occupational therapists as a source of distress for many children and for inexplicable behaviors. Sensory integration disorder can be often misdiagnosed due to its confusion with autistic children and their problematic sensory responses.

Below is a small quiz with common situations that may happen when a child has a over-response to sensory stimuli and may have sensory processing disorder.

1. We have to avoid public loud spaces such as malls, parks, etc. because the noise seems to hurt my child's ears.
2. My child doesn't like to be hugged or kissed and when I do it seems like it hurts (not to be confused with shyness or social difficulties)
3. My child has a hard time falling asleep and wakes up crying to any noise, change in temperature or minimal stimuli with high level of discomfort and it's difficult to comfort him back to sleep
4. When we buy clothes we have to take all of the tags off because my child can't stand the touch on his skin (not to be confused with normal discomfort).
5. Sounds, lights, movements, smells, tastes and any other sense seems to be heightened to the point where my child feels great discomfort or even pain while being exposed to these stimuli

*IMPORTANT: While this mini quiz can’t diagnose a child with sensory integration disorder, it can be a helpful guide to see if additional testing should be done. 

Sensory processing disorder symptoms

Sensory processing disorder symptoms

Sensory Processing Disorder-Treatment

For diagnosis and treatment, it’s generally recommended to see an occupational therapist. The therapeutic approach for occupational therapy, in this case, includes the use of sensory integration, which was originally created by A. Jean Ayres, PhD, and is formally known as Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI).

An occupational therapy session using the Ayres Sensory Integration system begins with an evaluation, and once it’s complete, the therapist will develop a plan aimed at enhancing the child’s ability to utilize their sensations. When the occupational therapist is using ASI intervention techniques, some core elements include:

  • An ASI intervention will challenge the child to develop ideas about what to do, allow the child to plan out these ideas and then successfully carry out the plans
  • The environment is rich in tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular opportunities and that creates both physical and emotional safety for the child
  • Many therapeutic activities will promote postural control and balance, which may include the use of special equipment such as suspended apparatus, scooters, and balls.
Sensory processing disorder- treatment

Sensory processing disorder- treatment

Tips and Creative Forms of Therapy

There are also many creative ways to help your child manage SPD in their daily life. The Ayres Sensory Integration system has created something called “Sensory Diet”, which refers to an individualized set of sensory based activities in which the child will participate throughout the day. Think of a “sensory diet” in the same way that healthy eating habits are distinguished by feeding our bodies the nutrients we need; a sensory diet “feeds” the child the right sensory needs of the child. A sensory diet allows the child to re-train the brain to process sensory information, which will then promote self-control. An example of a sensory diet would be:

  • A child who is an avoider and under-sensitive may be overwhelmed by loud sounds and stressful stimuli. In this case, the child would need breaks from distressing sounds, unpleasant tactile stimulation, etc.
  • A child who is not as aware of their body would need to incorporate lifting, pushing and pulling heaving objects as an activity into their everyday life. These activities will help the child gain an understanding of their body.
  • For children who have tactile issues, it is sometimes recommended to have the child drink seltzer water to experience bubbles in their mouth.

Overall, there are many forms of sensory diets that are individualized based on the child’s needs. You can create a sensory diet by working alongside your occupational therapist that will provide the correct form of activities to help the child.

Now that you know how to identify Sensory Processing Disorder and how to treat it, I hope you find this article useful and can become more aware of your child’s behavior. Feel free to leave a message below.

 

References:

Impact and Treatment of SPD. Retrieved from https://www.spdstar.org/basic/impact-and-treatment-of-spd

Understanding Sensory Processing Issues. Retrieved from  https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/understanding-sensory-processing-issues#item2

Dr. A. Jean Ayres, PhD. (1972). Ayres Sensory Integration. Retrieved from https://www.siglobalnetwork.org/ayres-sensory-integration

Jennifer is currently a senior at Mercy College from the state of New York, majoring in psychology with a minor in criminal justice. Jennifer is also an intern at a private practice in Midtown Manhattan. She aspires to be a clinical psychologist in the future working with inner city teens and adults who lack mental health resources. She also, enjoys learning anything and everything about human behavior.