Individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder navigate our world with a different experience.
Most of us encounter the world around us with curiosity, ease and enthusiasm. We are able to take in and process unexpected conversations, tune out the sounds of busy life, and enjoy a wide variety of new smells and tastes. But what if the senses you rely on so heavily for these experiences fail or mislead you?
Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological disorder in which the sensory information that the person perceives results in abnormal responses (definition by STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder https://sensoryhealth.org/)
In other words, the information that a person with SPD receives from their senses goes into the brain but does not get organised into appropriate responses.
A helpful analogy is to think of the nervous system like a stream of traffic on a highway where there are often traffic jams or congestion on the highway that prevent you from getting through. Similarly, for children and adults with SPD some neural impulses get blocked in the nervous system while other impulses get through.
The end result is that the brain does not receive all of the sensory information necessary to do an effective job. One child described his experience like this: “There’s a traffic jam of ideas in my head and they keep having accidents”. Because of these traffic jams in the nervous system, sensory information is not filtered properly in the brain stem resulting in too much or too little input.
We identify 8 senses that are included when assessing the disorder.
- Visual (sight)
- Auditory (sound)
- Olfactory (smell)
- Gustatory (taste)
- Tactile (touch)
The vestibular system is responsible for our balance and informing the brain if the body is stationary or in movement.
It sends input that determines how fast our bodies are moving and in what direction. Children, teens and adults that have difficulties within their vestibular systems may be described as clumsy, lazy or slump over instead of sitting, or move very cautiously.
The proprioceptive system determines the location, movement and orientation of the body joints and muscles. This system helps us determine how close we are to objects in our environment and our other body parts. Individuals who have struggles within their proprioceptive system may play too roughly with others, frequently crash or bump into things, and use excessive force when colouring or writing.
The interoception system helps determine the sensation of what our internal organs are feeling. An example would be feeling thirsty, hungry, or experiencing internal pain. A child that has struggles within this system may not recognize when they need to go to the bathroom or when they are hungry or full.
It is important to note that individuals who struggle with SPD can be over-responsive or under-responsive when processing sensory input from any of the above sensory systems.
Over responsive children are highly sensitive to sensory stimuli. An example may be a child who needs to utilize noise-cancelling headphones during noisy lunchtimes. Some examples of over-responsive symptoms could be avoiding touch, gaging, dislike of playground equipment/fast movement, or frequently covering their ears.
Under responsive children tend to under-react to sensory input. An example may be the child who craves sensory stimulation by touching peers’ hair or objects in the room. Examples of under responsive symptoms could be an attraction to certain sounds or frequent touching or smelling of objects and people.
image thanks to Pathways.org
As paediatric Occupational Therapists, we do not treat the diagnosis; we treat the whole child.
To us it doesn’t really matter what “diagnosis” a child has when they are referred to OT. We look at what the child’s strengths are, what occupations they are struggling with, what skills or abilities are needed to be able to perform those occupations, and then we set goals and create a treatment plan to help them be able to more fully engage, participate in, and enjoy life.
This can include addressing sensory processing difficulties and their impact on daily life. Early identification and intervention improve access to therapies and resources needed to be able to overcome the symptoms of SPD and improve the child’s ability to participate and thrive in daily life.
Please call us, or send us an email if you’d like more information or if you’d like us to assess your child.
You can find out more information on SPD here: