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What is sensory processing disorder?
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition that affects how your brain processes sensory information. Sensory information includes things you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Most often this processing disorder means that you are too sensitive to typical sensory information. But the disorder can cause the opposite effect, too. In these cases, it takes more sensory information to impact you at all.
SPD is usually associated with children. But adults also can have symptoms of SPD. For adults who have SPD, it is likely that these symptoms have existed for them since childhood. Most adults with SPD will develop coping mechanisms (ways to deal with SPD). These coping mechanisms help them fit in. They make SPD less recognizable.
There is some debate among doctors about whether SPD is a real disorder. Some doctors argue that it is not. They cite the trend to rush to a diagnosis for things that could also be explained as common behavior for young children. Some children are simply highly sensitive, they say. Some doctors also say that SPD is merely a symptom of other disorders (autism spectrum disorder, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, anxiety, etc.) and not a disorder itself. Other doctors believe that you may suffer from SPD without having another disorder. They say it is clear to see that some children have trouble handling regular sensory information (stimuli). For now, SPD is not recognized as an official medical diagnosis.
Symptoms of sensory processing disorder
SPD can affect one sense or multiple senses. Children who have SPD may overreact to sensory input such as sounds, clothing, and food textures. Or they may underreact to sensory input. This causes them to crave more intense thrill-seeking stimuli. Some examples include jumping off tall things or swinging too high on the playground. Also, children with SPD are not always just one or the other. They can be a mixture of oversensitive and under-sensitive.
Specific symptoms of SPD may include:
- clothing may feel scratchy or itchy
- lights may be too bright
- sounds may be too loud
- soft touches may feel too hard
- food texture may cause gagging
- may have poor balance or seem clumsy
- may be afraid to play on the swings
- reacts poorly to sudden movements/touches/loud noises/bright lights
- behavior problems.
Sometimes these symptoms are linked to poor motor skills, as well. Your child may have trouble holding a pencil or scissors. He or she may have trouble climbing stairs or have low muscle tone. He or she also may have language delays.
In an older child, these symptoms may undermine his or her self-confidence. They may lead to social isolation. They may even lead to depression.
- can’t sit still
- thrill-seeking (loves jumping, heights, spinning)
- can spin without getting dizzy
- does not pick up on social cues
- does not recognize personal space
- chewing on things (including hands and clothing)
- seeks visual stimulation (like electronics)
- has problems sleeping
- may not recognize when face is dirty or nose is running.
What causes sensory processing disorder?
Doctors do not know yet what causes SPD. They are exploring a genetic link, which means it could run in families. Some doctors believe there could be a link between autism and SPD. This could mean that adults who have autism could be more likely to have children who have SPD. But it is important to note that most people who have SPD are not on the autism spectrum.
How is sensory processing disorder diagnosed?
Parents may recognize that their child’s behavior is not typical. But most parents may not know why. Do not be afraid to discuss your child’s behavior with your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to an occupational therapist. These professionals can assess children for SPD. They will likely use a series of questions and observations to make a diagnosis. They may observe how your child reacts to certain stimuli. This could include swinging, leaning backwards, running, and jumping. Or they may just watch your child play.
Can sensory processing disorder be prevented or avoided?
SPD cannot be prevented because doctors don’t know exactly what causes it. Current research suggests SPD may be a genetic disorder. This means it may run in families.
Sensory processing disorder treatment
Much of SPD treatment involves learning to cope with the disorder. Teaching coping strategies is done during therapy sessions. These sessions are led by a trained therapist (usually an occupational therapist). Therapy sessions are highly customized. The session is developed based on whether your child is oversensitive, under-sensitive, or a combination of both.
Sensory integration therapy
One popular approach for treatment is called sensory integration therapy (SI). SI uses fun activities in a controlled, stimulating environment. This way, SPD patients can experience stimuli without feeling overwhelmed. Over time, they will develop coping skills for being exposed to stimuli. With work, these coping skills can eventually become their regular response to stimuli. Then, they will begin to more easily use these skills to cope with stimuli in their everyday lives at home, at work, or at school.
Many times, a sensory diet will supplement SI therapy or other therapies. A sensory diet is not your typical food-related diet. Instead, it is a list of sensory activities for home and school. These activities are designed to help your child stay focused and organized during the day.
Like SI, a sensory diet is customized based on specific needs and challenges. A sensory diet for a sensory-seeking child at school might include:
- A time every hour when the student could go for a 10-minute walk.
- A time twice a day when the student could swing for 10 minutes.
- Access to in-class headphones so the student can listen to music or white noise while working.
- Access to fidget toys in the classroom.
- Access to a desk chair bungee cord that allows the student to discreetly exercise his or her legs.
Your child also may need occupational therapy to help with other SPD-related symptoms.
Occupational therapy can help with fine motor skills such as handwriting and using scissors. It can also help with gross motor skills such as climbing stairs and throwing a ball.
Occupational therapy can also teach skills such as getting dressed and how to correctly use eating utensils.
Check your insurance
Before you book a session with a therapist, check your medical insurance to see what it covers. Many times, insurance won’t pay for the therapies used to treat SPD. This is because SPD is not yet recognized as an official disorder.
Living with sensory processing disorder
Living with SPD can be a struggle. It is sometimes difficult just to get a diagnosis because SPD isn’t recognized as an official disorder. Parents of children who have SPD can feel alone or isolated. This is because they may avoid taking their child to public places for fear of sensory overload. Parents may also feel as though they have to make excuses for their child’s behavior.
If your child has SPD, research shows that early treatment (therapy) is the best strategy. This can help teach children to manage their sensory challenges.
Sometimes, even if SPD gets better with therapy (or age), it may never fully go away. A big life event or stress can trigger SPD symptoms.
Adults who have SPD may also feel isolated. Sensory overload can prevent them from leaving the house. It can make it difficult to work. Even going to the grocery store can be an ordeal.
Therapy for adults who have SPD can help. The therapy is more successful in children, though. Adults are sometimes more set in their ways and resistant to change. They sometimes do not want to abandon the coping strategies they already have. This is true even if these strategies are no longer helping. Retraining the senses is still the best way to manage SPD symptoms. Adults who are struggling with SPD should work with an occupational therapist.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How can I determine whether I have/my child has SPD?
- I have/my child has SPD. Now what?
- Can you refer me to someone who can help?
- Are there any medicines that help SPD?
- Can my child live a normal life?
- Will my child be socially accepted?
- Can my child outgrow SPD?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.