Sensory Disorder

Does your child appear to be extra sensitive to sensory input such as bright lights or loud noises? Does your child hate to get glue on his hands? Or perhaps your child cannot handle the lights, noise, or rides at Disneyland or the local fair? She has a meltdown instead of having fun. These could be a sign of difficulties with sensory processing.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological impairment characterized by difficulty interpreting and integrating sensory input. The brain registers sensory input too strongly, not enough, incorrectly, or anywhere along a continuum. Some people with sensory processing disorders also report fluctuating sensory input, as if a control switch connected to their senses is being turned up and down randomly. Not all senses are necessarily affected equally.

The five senses that most people are familiar with are: touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell. There are also two additional senses: proprioceptive and vestibular. Your proprioceptive sense is involve in your body position and allows you to understand body awareness. It tells you where parts of your body are in relation to the rest of your body. Your vestibular sense is involved in balance, space, and motion sense, and it orients you to the world.

Examples of areas that are affected by sensory processing are:

  • Over or under sensitive to touch, sounds, smells, and/or taste/texture
  • Visually distracted: under- or over-responsive to visual stimuli
  • Clumsy with poor body and spatial awareness (e.g. bumps into people)
  • Difficulty with motor planning (executing ideas)
  • Low muscle tone and poor posture
  • Difficulty with writing—can be spatial difficulties and/or pencil grip
  • Oral-motor difficulties including chewing and speech
  • Over or under-reactive to pain
  • Difficulty picking up on social cues
  • Difficulty transitioning
  • Distorted or fragmented sensory input (e.g. hearing parts of what is being, lighting increasing or decreasing in brightness, etc.)
  • Repetitive behaviors/stimming (e.g. hand flapping)

Children/students with sensory processing disorder have a tipping point at which they hit sensory overload. This occurs whether they are sensory avoidant or sensory seeking. A major objective in dealing with sensory overload is to try to become familiar with any signs or environments that are precursors (antecedents) to a sensory meltdown. For example, if you notice a pattern of your child showing agitation and s/he starts to wiggle right before a meltdown, then look for that sign and do all you can to calm the situation. It may mean finding a quiet place for your child to relax so as to avoid a meltdown.

If your child has a meltdown right after school (many parents tell me this happens), it could be that your child has kept it together all day long only to have it all fall apart at the end of the day. I recommend a quiet favorite activity right after school such as reading a preferred book in a quiet room, etc. Try to give your child some down time to unwind peacefully (avoid going to the super market or places that may be sensory overwhelming).

If you suspect your child has issues with sensory processing, and this is affecting his/her education, you can request that the school or district occupational therapist (OT) do an assessment. An occupational therapist is a trained professional who has training and knowledge in the way the nervous system functions and understands the anatomy and physiology behind everyday tasks we perform (e.g. tying your shoe laces). Remember, schools do not generally offer this therapy unless the sensory processing disorder is affecting his/her education. One example of this would be a child having difficulty writing due to poor pencil grip.

Ask either the school or private OT about a good sensory diet for your child. A sensory diet is a list of activities that should be done daily to improve your student/child’s sensory integration. One example of an activity would be jump on a trampoline (with safety nets) for fifteen minutes daily. Each activity should be tailored for your child individually based on his/her needs and it should evolve as your child grows. A lot of the activities may seem like “play,” but children with sensory processing disorders often have difficulty with play (fine and gross motor as well as the social aspects).

Sensory Processing Disorder is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) as a stand-alone diagnosis. It also is not listed under the diagnosis of autism. However, it is increasingly being recognized as a medical/neurological condition that is being addressed in therapy. Temple Grandin, PhD, an animal scientist who is autistic, discusses sensory issues at length in her books Thinking in Pictures and The Way I See It (two books I highly recommend).

People who have sensory processing disorders have explained that it can be debilitating. For example, if a person is hyper-sensitive to sound, it can impact many aspects of his/her life. With that in mind, it is best to get the help needed to manage this very real impairment.

I am an educator—not a doctor or psychologist. This information is not intended to diagnose your child or student. It is meant to be informative and intended for educational purposes.

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