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 processing disorder.
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 percent.
Sensory processing disorder is often misdiagnosed as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or other behavioral and learning disorders.
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 avoider).
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 herself.
“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 SPD.
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 environment.
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 vigilant.