Imagine being at a loud rock concert for six hours.
Locked in. Trapped. Forced to stay.
This is what school can be like for a child with sensory
It has been estimated that 5 percent of children in the U.S.
suffer from sensory processing disorder, previously known as
sensory integration dysfunction.
But Carol Kranowitz, author of Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing
and Coping with Sensory Integration Dysfunction and Out-of Sync
Child Has Fun: Activities for Kids with Sensory Integration
Dysfunction, says that based on her experience, she believes that
figure is too conservative. She places the number closer to 15
Sensory processing disorder is often misdiagnosed as ADHD
(Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or other behavioral and
An Internet search of SPD will lead you to numerous autism
sites. While many children with autism suffer from SPD, not all
children with SPD are autistic. SPD is a neurological disorder that
affects how a person perceives and processes information coming in
through the senses: sight, smell, tactile (touch), auditory
(hearing), vestibular (sense of where we are in space) and
proprioception (sensations from muscles, joints and tendons).
"When a child has SPD, they have trouble connecting with the
outside world," says Dr. Douglas Bierma, chairman of the Department
of Pediatrics at Provena Saint Joseph Hospital and diagnostic
specialist for the Autism Clinic at Easter Seals in Joliet. "The
information that comes in comes in either too strong or not strong
enough. So the tag inside your clothes that you wouldn't even
notice can be like sandpaper to a child with SPD. Certain foods or
smells can actually make them physically sick."
Bierma says SPD is often mistaken for poor parenting. "A child
who wiggles in his seat at school to the point of falling off is
seen as hyper or misbehaving," says Bierma, "but that child may
have space issues and not have realized that he was close to the
edge. A child may drop to the floor and have a temper tantrum in
the middle of a store and people immediately think it is because of
bad parenting. But that child may be a good child, just one
suffering from sensory overload."
When trying to identify SPD, parents should look for atypical
reactions to touch and movement, Kranowitz says. "Does the child
complain about what he wears? About the things he eats? Does the
child avoid things most kids his age like? Or is the child into
everything, likes a lot of touch?"
Two kids, both with SPD and on opposite ends of the spectrum,
can look completely different, with one child seeking stimulation
(the sensory seeker) and the other avoiding it (the sensory
Kranowitz says don't just look at the behavior but what the
child is trying to accomplish with the behavior. Ask yourself, is
it a touch or movement problem?
Deanna Drapeau of Plainfield could write a textbook on SPD. The
mom of four has two children on the spectrum and suffers from SPD
"Scotty, my 5-year-old, is a sensory avoider," Drapeau says. "As
an infant, he loved to sit in his bouncy chair and watch the world
around him go by." But Drapeau says his smiles would instantly turn
into screams and uncontrollable crying if she picked him up. "He
wouldn't stop crying until we put him back down."
When Scotty finds himself in a crowd of people, Drapeau says she
sees him withdrawing. "First he crosses his fingers tightly and
then he slowly makes his way into a corner far from the action. He
has friends, but he keeps them to a select few. They are the ones
who have come to understand that there are times they just cannot
invade his space."
Scotty's 2-year-old brother, Liam, is a sensory seeker. "He will
often bang his head against something or if it is too quiet he will
scream or yell to fill the silence. Liam, unlike Scotty, will eat
just about anything. He loves to overstuff his mouth with foods
that have a lot of textures."
Drapeau is more like Scotty, a sensory avoider. She dislikes too
much touch or crowded places. "I work hard with the kids because I
don't want them to avoid situations like I've done for years."
There are no quick cures for SPD, no magic medications to make
it go away and kids with SPD will not likely grow out of it. It is
more likely these kids will develop ways to cope.
Understanding, patience and occupational therapy are the best
medicine for a child with SPD, says Anna Villanueva, a certified
occupational therapy assistant who treats kids suffering from
If the SPD is severe and left untreated, then the sensory
avoiding child may grow up retreating from everyday life. And, the
sensory seeking child will forever be misunderstood, labeled a
troublemaker and run the risk of becoming an angry adult.
Tips for dealing with SPD
If your child is a sensory seeker, try a trampoline, an exercise
ball, jump rope, Play-Doh and high-energy rough-and-tumble types of
games and sports. Provide your child with a sensory stimulating
If your child is a sensory avoider, then try gentle
encouragement to play with things such as Play-Doh, shaving cream,
paint and other things that he may try to avoid. Be patient, but be
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