No two kids alike when it comes to sensory disorders

One child can’t put on socks if the socks have seams. Another can’t do art projects because the feeling of paint on his hands is too overwhelming. Another can’t ever seem to stop spinning. All these children have something in common: they all have sensory processing difficulties. Statistically if you have met 10 children in your life, you have met at least one with sensory processing difficulties. 

Sensory processing difficulties have burst into parenting conversations in the last 10 years. More commonly referred to as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), there are as many misconceptions about it as there are ways it manifests.

As the conversation grows, however, sensory processing is becoming more understood, accepted, and, most importantly, more children are getting the interventions they need.  

What is SPD? 

SPD can be boiled down to one core idea: the brain misinterprets input from any of the senses. 

From there it gets a bit more complicated. Sometimes the brain can amplify the input, making bright lights brighter, loud noises louder or tags in the back of a shirt unbearable, as a few examples. Sometimes it can mute the sensory input, making the body crave more input by telling the person to touch, spin or rock to make up for the lack of sensory input the brain is receiving. 

There is no single way SPD presents in babies, children or adults. And while we were taught in school there are five senses (sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste) there are actually two additional senses that give us information about our surroundings: the vestibular (how are bodies are moving, spinning, etc.) and proprioception (where are bodies are in space). Someone with SPD can be overly sensitive and avoid certain textures and also be under-responsive to their vestibular inputs and feel the need to swing or spin to make up for the lack of input. 

Sarah Flood and Joanna Pasheluk, occupational therapists at Chicago Pediatric Therapy and Wellness Center, both work extensively with children and adolescents with SPD. 

They both warn against calling it a “disorder.” 

“The word disorder can be frightening to parents.” Flood says. “There is nothing wrong with a child with SPD. They just need some strategies to help them become successful.” 

How common is it? 

For a long time, sensory issues were very often associated only with kids with autism. While it is true that individuals with autism present with SPD, most individuals with SPD do not have autism. 

Recent research also points to SPD being more common than previously realized. 

Dr. Lucy Miller, widely considered the most prominent researcher of SPD, has been working in the sensory field for more than 45 years. She estimates the number of individuals with some sort of SPD around 10 percent. “Statistically there are at least one to two children in every classroom with SPD. Easily,” she says.

Identification and therapy

One of the challenges around SPD is that it looks different on almost every person. Any number of the seven senses can be under-or-over responsive at any time.

The difference between a child who simply might not like to get messy vs. a child with SPD comes when aversions or sensory-seeking start to inhibit daily activities.

“When a child literally cannot do things like art projects, sit for circle time or play on the playground, instead of being able to do the things but simply dislike them, that is when we start to think there are sensory difficulties,” Pasheluk says. 

The path to identification can be murky. 

Because SPD is not a formal diagnosis, there is no rigid set of tests. However, more pediatricians, schools and other professionals are becoming more adept at identifying sensory problems early on. 

Many babies who come into OT for feeding problems might actually have sensory issues. Teachers are starting to refer students for OT evaluations when they notice certain behaviors as well. 

“Sensory processing belongs in the domain in OT,” Miller says. “We know about the integration with physical sensations.” 

While there are many products for children with SPD such as weighted blankets, swings or sensory jars, Miller argues the most important thing for parents with children with SPD is one simple word: play.

“You don’t need to spend thousands on a child with SPD to help them,” she says. “Go to the playground, put down your cellphones and just play. That is worth more than any weighted blanket.” 

With a little extra help, children with SPD can excel in their environments, and parents can learn how to help make them successful. In fact, many children with SPD have been shown to be gifted. 

“Sensory kids need to learn how to live life. They need to learn how to live with their successes,” Miller says. 

Red Flags for SPD

Infants and toddlers
  • Problems eating or sleeping
  • Refuses to go to anyone but their mom for comfort
  • Irritable when being dressed; uncomfortable in clothes
  • Rarely plays with toys
  • Resists cuddling, arches away when held
  • Cannot calm self
  • Floppy or stiff body, motor delays
Preschoolers
  • Over-sensitive to touch, noises, smells, other people
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Difficulty dressing, eating, sleeping and/or toilet training
  • Clumsy; poor motor skills
  • In constant motion; in everyone else’s “face and space”
  • Frequent or long temper tantrums Grade-schoolers
  • Over-sensitive to touch, noise, smells, other people
  • Easily distracted, fidgety, craves movement; aggressive
  • Easily overwhelmed
  • Difficulty with handwriting or motor activities
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Unaware of pain and/or other people
Adolescents and adults
  • Over-sensitive to touch, noise, smells, and other people
  • Poor self-esteem; afraid of failing at new tasks
  • Lethargic and slow
  • Always on the go; impulsive; distracted
  • Leaves tasks uncompleted
  • Clumsy, slow, poor motor skills or handwriting
  • Difficulty staying focused
  • Unmotivated; never seems to get joy from life

This article appeared in the summer issue of Special Parent. Read the rest of the issue.

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