Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organised into appropriate responses. Our bodies are taking in information all the time through our five senses to help us navigate and interpret the world we live in.
People with sensory processing disorder find it difficult to process sensory information (e.g. sound, touch and movement) from the world around them. They may feel sensory input more or less intensely than other people. SPD can therefore impact on a person’s ability to interact in different environments and perform daily activities.
Our skills range from knowing where we are in space, to fine motor coordination. If you think about it, even the simple action of bringing a spoon of food to your mouth requires the intense cooperation and exact timing of many hundreds of muscles. If any of these muscles have poor timing, the action becomes jerky and our food ends up on the floor.
Even the act of trying this with your non-dominant hand can result in embarrassing spills!
The simplest position like daily posture is affected as we need to get feedback about where our body “is” in space. People with SPD may not process this sensory feedback well. Instead of sitting up straight, they may slouch and to the outside world look “lazy”.
If we do not getting feedback about how a pen feels in our hand, then we may not be able to hold it correctly and have poor writing skills.
All five senses may be affected.
A person may have difficulty planning their movements as a result of incorrect processing of sensory information. But vision, hearing , touch, motion and internal organs may also be affected.
Sensory Processing Disorder may occur in isolation meaning there is no other disability or illness. But it also often occurs together with other conditions.
Common Issues For Adults With Sensory Processing Disorder
For adults with Sensory Processing Disorder, noise in the work environment may make it almost impossible to function. Noises that would be normal for most people like phones ringing, co-workers talking loudly, traffic outside or machines whirring in the background may overwhelm the sensory feedback systems of someone with SPD.
Many of these adults may choose work from home and control their environment or find other work places where it is quieter and more controlled.
Even for some people the act of getting to work creates too much stress and overwhelm. Whether it is navigating peak hour traffic or fighting the crowds in the subway, the experience can result in intense stress and meltdowns.
Sometimes other daily activities like shopping are difficult. They need to go to the store at odd hours to avoid the crowds and ensure it is not busy. Of course online shopping has been an enormous benefit.
Clothing can be an issue for people with SPD. They may need to avoid sensory input like tight seams, tight belts, tight socks. Sometimes different fabrics may irritate them. Or sometimes they get comfort from a certain type of material that feels soothing.
Common Issues For Children With Sensory Processing Disorder?
Children have not yet developed adequate coping skills or the ability to communicate their frustration, so often act out, display meltdowns or scream and hit other children.
They may have difficulties following instructions at home and at school resulting in poor behaviour, poor learning and a poor ability to express ideas using language.
They may be easily distracted, have poor concentration and poor memory
Often social skills are affected and they are not able to interact meaningfully with other kids and develop friendships. They may prefer to play on their own.
Due to over sensory stimulation, kids with sensory processing disorder may need to avoid the amusement parks and fair grounds due to too many people, too many noises smells and visual stimuli.
Kids with SPD may appear lethargic or disinterested and appear to be “in their own world”.
They may have difficulty regulating their own emotional responses and be prone to tantrums, impulsive behaviours and the need for control.
Children with Sensory Processing Disorder generally have poor motor skills, poor coordination and balance.
Sleep is often a problem with waking in the night and difficulty going to sleep.
They can be picky eaters.
They dislike self care like cutting nails, washing, dressing tying shoe laces, hair brushing. Kids with SPD also struggle with changes in routine or transitioning between tasks. They can be very rigid.
They love big movements with lots of pressure- like jumping around, crashing into people or objects and constant spinning.
What Can Be Done To Help Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder
As we learn more and more about sensory processing order, there is quite a lot that can be done to help each child. More research is helping the understanding of this disorder and appropriate treatments.
Much of the treatments involve therapists like occupational therapist, physical therapists and cognitive behavioural therapists. Make sure you do get a correct diagnosis so you understand what you are dealing with and can give the correct care.
Every child is different and there may be a combination of conditions occurring at the same time. Seek medical professional diagnoses and help identify the major issues which can be addressed. Parents, teachers, caregivers and therapist will need to work together to ensure the same message is being conveyed to the child and the best outcomes achieved.
Giving advance notice of changes to routine will help the child adapt and not take them by surprise which will raise stress levels.
Allow extra time to get to a location, or to transition from one task to the next.
At school, smaller classes will help if possible. Ideally some one-on-one time throughout the day will help the child progress quicker.
Try to actively work on broadening their range of skill areas and interests.
Your therapist might try the Wilbarger Protocol (Deep Pressure Proprioceptive Technique) which is a therapy program designed to reduce sensory or tactile defensiveness and assist with sensory regulation.
Your therapist will also help you work out a “sensory diet” to provide sensory feedback to the body to enable it to sensory regulate.
Your physical therapist will devise a program to help strength and coordination to enable your child to participate in a multitude of sports and activities which will be a good vehicle for social interaction.
Work with a therapist to develop ideal behaviour management. Learn to use a consistent approach to manage behaviour (e.g. if the child finds that every time they are given a direction, the same response is expected, or that every time they react in a certain way, the same consequence follows, they will learn the appropriate behaviour far more quickly).
Observe common triggers that spark inappropriate sensory reactions. Sometimes keeping a diary will help you recognise patterns.
Develop social stories to help your child understand routines and how to respond in certain situations. This will improve a child’s ability of knowing when to talk and what sort of conversation conventions may be appropriate.
Medication may be appropriate or not. Seek your doctor/paediatrician’s advice.
Will Weighted Blankets Help My Child’s Sensory Processing Disorder?
Weighted blankets feel like a warm comforting hug.
There are many studies on the power and important of touch in human development. Babies and toddlers that are hugged and touched thrive far better than babies that are not.
Hugs release oxytocin (National Institute of Health 2007). When oxytocin is released, humans experience decreased anxiety, decreased stress and increased feelings of comfort and bonding.
Hugs also release dopamine (Touch Research Institute, University of Miami, 2013)
Hugs are closely associated with deep pressure therapy. Edelson et al 1999 found increased immunity, decreased blood pressure and heart rate associated with deep pressure touch and hugs. This helps the child feel less anxious, more calm, less stressed and emotionally more stable.
Massage produces similar results.
Occupational therapists and Physical therapists both use massage, compression and deep pressure to help relax and calm their patients.
If a child feels overwhelmed or stressed, the flight or flight hormones are released and verbal or physical aggression may result. Deep pressure, massage, weighted blankets or hugs all help soothe this stress and provide a sense of calm.
Calm and relaxation is important to aid learning. If a child is tired, agitated, hungry or stressed, they are unlikely to learn anything at school and be prone to acting out.
Sleep is also a major factor. Many kids with sensory processing disorder do not sleep well. Weighted blankets help many children get to sleep faster, calm down before bedtime and stay asleep.
Sometimes a cycle develops of poor sleep, increase fatigue, worse concentration, worse coordination, increased anxiety and stress.
Helping improve sleep is critical to improving all skills.
Our body is constantly scanning our environment and sending us information.
It never stops. It does this to keep us safe. If it perceives that we are safe, it relaxes. If it perceives a threat, the body goes on high alert. It releases cortisol and other stress hormones. Many of us live almost all our waking hours in this stressed state. Children with sensory processing disorder are even more prone to this stressed state as they cannot process all this stimuli fast enough to make sense of it.
There may be a place for mindfulness and meditation in children with sensory processing disorder to help improve concentration, increase calm and decrease stimuli.
What Will Happen If A Child With Sensory Processing Disorder Is Left Untreated?
As we discussed above, there is a lot that can be done to help children with sensory processing disorder. However if undiagnosed and untreated, their symptoms are likely to become more noticeable as they get older.
They will continue have difficulty following instructions in home and school. This will make them increasingly worse poor basic numeracy and literacy skills such as reading and writing and coping in the academic environment.
Poor social skills may make them appear rude, have difficulty making friends and eventually lack confidence and self esteem. They may be targets of bullying when others kids realise their difficulties. Skills like making eye-contact, maintaining an appropriate social distance when talking and learning when to take turns in a conversation can be taught and improved.
Sensory processing disorder can range from mild to severe. If you suspect your child has it, the earlier intervention the better. Get help and understand what you can do at home to continue making good progress.