I write this article in honor of Sensory Processing Disorder Awareness Month (October). As a mother of a child who has sensory processing challenges, I thought it would be appropriate to bring to light an often misunderstood and “invisible” challenge that many youngsters face. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) often is mistaken for ADD/ADHD, “bad” behavior, “bad” parenting, etc., in which a child may exhibit sensory-seeking behaviors (such as crashing into people or objects), distractibility, impulse-control issues, sensory sensitivity (such as lights or sounds that are too bright or too loud), or balance and coordination challenges, among many others. SPD is not the child’s nor the parents’ fault.
According to the SPD Foundation website, “Sensory processing (sometimes called sensory integration, or SI) is a term that refers to the way that the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Whether you are biting into an apple, riding a bicycle, or reading a book, your successful completion of the activity requires processing the activity or ‘sensory integration.’ Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses.”
SPD affects up to one in six children, according to some studies. It is thought to be inherited, although birth/prenatal trauma may also have some impact as it relates to developing SPD. The condition is chronic and lifelong, but can be managed through treatment such as occupational therapy and a “sensory diet,” exercise, good nutrition, and good “sleep hygiene.”
Individuals can have one sense affected or more than one (such as touch and sound sensitivity). Severity of the impairment ranges from mild to severe, affecting life domains such as educational, social, and work settings. Some individuals also have co-occurring challenges, such as learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, and/or autism. SPD often is confused with ADD/ADHD because sometimes the symptoms look a lot alike—sensory-seeking behaviors can mimic hyperactivity or create distractibility—and many providers are not trained in assessment for SPD.
The brain of a child with SPD is hard-wired differently than a “typical” youngster. However, most children with SPD are just as intelligent as their peers. With treatment and early intervention, SPD is very manageable. Thus, there is reason to be hopeful if you have a child whom you suspect may have SPD. The key is obtaining an assessment from a qualified professional as soon as you suspect SPD. In many cases, this assessment can be generated through your child’s school district (in California, for example, a parent can ask for an individualized education plan as early as age 3 and utilize early childhood intervention programs). If your child qualifies for special education services, he or she will be eligible to receive occupational therapy, the predominant means of treating SPD.
Occupational therapy can take place in education, clinic, and home settings—ideally in sensory-rich environments. Activities are designed by a specialist (occupational therapist) who helps the child receive a “sensory diet” that nourishes the senses. For example, a child with an underdeveloped vestibular/proprioceptive system may need swinging and gentle pressure activities that help the child experience his or her body’s movement in space. Specialized gym equipment can help with this process.
The occupational therapist can talk with parents and teachers about methods that can help a child get his or her sensory needs met in different settings. For example, if Johnny is a “sensory-seeker” and needs proprioceptive input so he can focus at school, he may be allowed to squeeze a fidget toy at his desk, which in turn helps him focus on his work. At home, Johnny may jump for 30 minutes on a trampoline before he starts his homework. A “sensory diet” is a critical part of managing SPD. The therapist has specialized training in setting this up for your child. My son has benefited significantly from many compassionate occupational therapists who have helped him be successful in school and social settings.
The topic of sensory integration and occupational therapy is so broad that truly expounding upon the subject would require an encyclopedia. I have barely scratched the surface in this article, but I’ll list a few books and websites that have been incredibly helpful for my family in managing SPD:
- SPDfoundation.net (SPD Foundation)
- SensoryPlanet.com (social network for parents)
- LDonline.com (for learning disabilities, SPD, ADD/ADHD, autism)
- Special-Ism.com (resources, support, advocacy, stigma reduction)
- The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping With Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Kranowicz (2005)
- Growing an In-Sync Child: Simple, Fun Activities to Help Every Child Develop, Learn, and Grow by Carol Kranowicz (2010)
- Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Disorder by Nancy Peske (2009)
- Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder by Lucy Jane Miller (2007)
I hope these are helpful to you.
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