What Exactly IS Sensory Processing Disorder?

Have you been told that your child has a sensory processing disorder (SPD)? If so, you may be wondering exactly what that is! October is National Sensory Awareness month, so this is the perfect time to address this topic. I’m going to explain sensory processing disorders to you in the most basic way possible, and I hope that you will come away understanding exactly what this diagnosis is, as well as why treatment is so important!

Five Basic Senses Plus Three
In order to understand sensory processing, let’s begin by thinking about the five basic senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. In addition to those, there are three additional senses: the sensory system that processes movement (vestibular), the system that tells where our body parts are located in space (proprioception) and the system that lets us know how we feel “internally” (interoceptive). As our brains receive sensory input from each separate system, that input must be interpreted, integrated, organized, and processed efficiently, so that an individual can react appropriately to the input. Let’s briefly review each of the senses and explain some of the symptoms that can occur when a sensory processing problem exists.

Sight 
Problems with processing visual input result when the brain has difficulty making sense of the visual information that is taken in through the eyes.

  • A person can still have normal vision (20/20), but might have difficulty discriminating sizes, forms, positions in space, and telling a foreground from a background.
  • Children may also be oversensitive to light and complain that the light is painful to their eyes. Fluorescent lighting may be especially bothersome.

Smell and Taste
The olfactory is the sense of smell and gustatory is the sense of taste. As you might imagine, these senses are connected. Problems with the processing of these senses can result in the following symptoms:

  • Avoids or shows a strong preference for certain tastes or textures or smells;
  • Gags easily or gags with certain food textures or smells; and/or
  • Difficulty sucking, chewing, or swallowing.

Touch
The tactile system is the sense of touch. This is the sensory system that helps us to learn about our bodies and our environment. It is important in the development of a child’s body scheme (the internal map of our body and how we use our body to interact with the environment). This system is composed of two subsystems:

  1. discriminatory- allows us to know where we are being touched; and
  2. protective- tells us if we are in contact with something dangerous.

Tactile input is very important for the development of fine-motor skills, visual perception skills and articulation of sounds. Children who have problems with processing tactile input might demonstrate the following symptoms:

  • Avoid messy materials such as finger paints;
  • Express distress during grooming;
  • Sensitive to certain fabrics or textures;
  • Irritated by clothing tags or seams in socks.

Hearing
The auditory system is the sense of hearing. Problems with auditory processing are likely due to an over/under sensitivity or confusion with the processing of sounds in the environment. Children with auditory processing issues can present with some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Seem unsettled or distressed in loud environments such as parties and ballgames;
  • Frequently covers ears to sounds that other children tolerate;
  • Appear not to hear you when your talking; and/or
  • Possible language difficulties.

Vestibular System
The vestibular system is the sensory system that responds to accelerated and decelerated movement. It is through the vestibular system that we learn directions and realize our body position in space. This system has interconnections with many parts of the body and influences many different functions, for example muscle tone, postural control, balance, eye and neck muscles. Problems with processing vestibular input can result in:

  • Motion Sensitivity;
  • Clumsiness- difficulty learning to ride a bicycle, hopping, and stair climbing; and/or
  • Fear of Heights.

Proprioceptive System
Proprioceptive information is sensations from muscles and joints. Proprioceptive input tells the brain when and how muscles are contracting and stretching and how joints are being compressed or pulled. It tells us to know where our bodies are in space and how they are moving. Proprioceptive input provides a calming effect. It works along with the vestibular system. Some behaviors that are often associated with proprioception processing issues include:

  • Do not seem to notice when someone touches you;
  • Tire easily when standing or holding a particular body position; and/or
  • Frequently prop up on elbows to support self.

Interoception
The interoceptive sense works to regulate body temperature, emotional awareness, hunger, thirst, heart rate, the digestive system, as well as bowel and bladder functioning. When this system isn’t functioning properly, a child might have difficulty:

  • Maintaining a consistent level of arousal;
  • Maintaining body temperature; and
  • Even learning toileting skills.

Because this system perceives input from many of our internal organs and constantly communicates with the central nervous system, it plays an important role in letting us know “how we feel” from one day to the next.

Sensory Processing Disorder
The brain of a person with a sensory processing disorder does not organize the input from some or all of the previously mentioned systems and pull that input together in order to make an appropriate response to the environment. This can result in an inability to orient, stay calm and focus attention throughout daily routines. Some or all of the following behaviors may result:

  • Dislikes changes in routine/transitions;
  • Temper tantrums; and/or
  • Poor frustration tolerance.

Treatment Options
If you suspect that your child has a sensory processing disorder, carefully consider whether or not the issue is affecting his or her quality of life. If so, treatment should be considered. Seek out an occupational or physical therapist with experience using sensory integration techniques.

Why is treatment necessary? As children are developing, daily sensory experiences are crucial. Kids with sensory issues usually don’t explore their environments as typical children do, and this lack of exploration can lead to delays with gross-motor, fine-motor, and possibly speech and language skills. Through a thorough evaluation, the therapist will identify where the specific problems are, and determine the sensory input that is most appropriate for each individual child. During therapy, children will gain the skills needed in order to more appropriately explore and interact with the environment.

How Effective is Therapy?
As an occupational therapist certified to administer the Sensory Integration and Praxis Test and 18 years experience providing therapy, I believe in sensory integration therapy. I have seen dramatic improvement in children who have received therapy on a consistent basis. Parents frequently share stories about how therapy helped their child better tolerate basic grooming activities, which made their day-to-day routines much more tolerable, and even pleasant. Personally, I love hearing how children that once resisted playing on the playground, swinging, or going to amusement parks are now engaging in, and enjoying these activities. The sense of relief expressed by so many parents and the smiles on the kids faces are proof enough for me!

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Anne H. Zachry, PhD, OTR/L About Anne H. Zachry, PhD, OTR/L

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