Sensory Processing Disorder: Is it Real?
Sensory processing disorder is often overlooked or misdiagnosed. Here is what to look for, and how to treat it.
Is your child an especially picky eater? Does your son or daughter get upset about the clothes you pick out for him or her? Parents sometimes assume that their child is acting out when it may actually be a sign of an underlying issue. Sensory processing disorder, or SPD, is a complex brain condition where nervous system sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses, according to the SPD Foundation.
One study found that SPD affects one in 20 children’s daily life while other research suggested one in six children experience sensory symptoms that may be significant enough to impact everyday life functions. A person with the disorder can find it challenging to process information received through the senses and, therefore, react atypically. This, in turn, can affect the way an individual takes on routine tasks and may manifest in clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety and issues at school, which is why it is important to seek treatment.
Difficulty with emotional outbursts, misbehaving, difficulty learning or paying attention or delays in developmental milestones are things you may see in a child with SPD. Parents may wonder why their kids don’t like the texture of sand or are picky about their clothes or foods they eat. This can all be tied to SPD. Individuals with SPD can experience it through one sense or through multiple senses. Some people may over respond to a sensation and find clothing, touch, light or sound to be unbearable, while another individual with SPD may under respond and show little reaction to stimulation, even when it causes pain. Children who exhibit an appetite for a sensation in perpetual overdrive are often misdiagnosed as having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the SPD Foundation.
Health care professionals may not always recognize these sensory issues. A pediatrician may evaluate a child and tell parents that he’s a typical boy and he’ll grow out of it, without addressing the integration issue, but even if the child does learn to tolerate the beach, he or she may never learn to integrate the smell, the touch or the sound, potentially creating additional sensory issues in the future.
What Causes SPD?
While a cause is still unknown, SPD occurs more often in people who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism and anxiety disorders. In a recent study, researchers, for the first time, identified a biological difference in the brain structures of children with the disorder.
Treatment is very personalized and can range from as short as just a few visits or longer, lasting months. The dangers are parents who try to treat SPD on their own, or kids who simply aren’t treated. People may think that their child has grown out of an issue. They may learn to tolerate that one issue, but if the underlying senses triggered aren’t properly integrated, it will most likely cause difficulties later. If you think something isn’t quite right, follow your gut, and push for a referral from your pediatrician to get a comprehensive evaluation. Treatment will be more effective, less intense and shorter in duration if addressed early on.
Bri VonLehmden-Kurcsak is a pediatric occupational therapist at Novant Health Rehabilitation Center specializing in sensory processing disorders, picky eaters and problem feeders, and the behavioral challenges that arise with developmental delays and autism spectrum disorders. She has extensive training and also serves as adjunct faculty at CPCC in the OTA program, teaching pediatric courses.