The boy that whirls and spins. The girl who covers her ears when the lawnmower outside begins. Those who crash against walls, seemingly constantly bouncing off… well… everything. Kiddos who “mouth”, scratch at tags, refuse shoes, fall over seemingly nothing, who are loose in their limbs and unsteady on their feet. These are all examples of children living with sensory processing disorder.
Sensory Processing Disorder, otherwise known as SPD and formerly known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction, is a neurological disorder that results in difficulties in taking in our environment through our senses, then processing this information appropriately within our bodies. Basically, the information in the world around us is misinterpreted.
While most of us remember being taught the 5 senses when growing up, the senses referred to here can be divided into 8 categories. Yes! I said 8. For those of you familiar with SPD, you know there to be 7 senses (yes, I did also just say 7), but recently, I’ve found a reference to an 8th sense. Let’s take a quick look:
1. Visual – this refers to what we see or take in through our eyes
- could mean: lights are too bright, even simple puzzles are impossible to figure out, inability to spot objects within a background or within a room, inability to block out movement and activity surrounding you, being uncomfortable or even agitated in busy settings (busily decorated rooms, etc)
2. Auditory – this refers to what we hear
- could mean: having extreme reactions to loud noises (emergency sirens, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners); covering ears in response to these noises or screaming, panicking or becoming agitated in response to the noises; inability to block out background conversations or noises from another room; able to hear sounds you are unable to; become agitated in noisy or busy rooms; unresponsive to someone simply calling your name (as if you don’t hear them at all)
3. Tactile – this refers to what we can touch or feel
- could mean: extreme dislike for clothing with tags, seams of socks, wearing shoes or certain materials; extreme reactions to nail cutting / hair cutting; dislikes or avoids hugs, tickles or touch of any kind from another; seemingly unresponsive to extreme temperatures (not reacting to items that are too hot or cold); conversely, extreme reactions to weather; seemingly unresponsive to painful stimuli (ex. not reacting when running into something that later causes bruising etc); also can refer to textures (not taste) of food (yogurt versus carrots)
4. Olfaction – this refers to our sense of smell
- could mean: an extreme reaction to certain smells (even subtle ones) or seemingly non-reactive to strong smells; unable to identify smells
5. Gustatory – this refers to what we taste
- could mean: preferring to eat only bland foods; inability to taste differences in food; “mouthing” non food objects (licking walls, chewing on clothing or towels, putting inedible objects/toys etc in the mouth excessively or when no longer age appropriate); difficulty chewing and/or swallowing
6. Vestibuar – this refers to our sense of balance
- could mean: swinging on the swings for hours or craving the swing; conversely refusing or fearing the movement of swinging; spins that is not part of play and without getting dizzy; liking or craving to be upside down; rocking movements; avoiding any activity where your head tips or moves from the ‘normal’ upright position (this includes bending over to grab objects)
7. Proprioceptive – this refers to our body positioning
- could mean: constantly crashing into things (walls, the floor, people) either by accident or with purpose; constant jumping off objects (to ‘crash’ on the floor); difficulty with motor planning (determining the steps to climb a ladder); craves hugs, especially hard hugs
8. Interoception - this refers to our body’s physiological or physical condition
- could mean: an inability to detect or regulate feelings of hunger, thirst, need for elimination, etc. You can read more about Interoception on the SPD Foundation website.
How do you recognize SPD?
Sensory Processing Disorder can be debilitating.
There are times that any of us might fall into one or more of these categories. The difference between people with ‘normal’ or reasonably manageable sensory sensitivities and those suffering with a sensory processing disorder can be found in extremes. The actions listed above, when found in an excessive or consistently extreme manner should be considered to be (though not necessarily) a sensory processing disorder.
There are tools available to you if you have questions, such as this checklist that can be found on the SPD Foundation website. However, tools such as these should not be used to diagnose a Sensory Processing Disorder, but merely give you an idea if you’re on the right track.
What can you do next?
If you feel that you or your child has Sensory Processing Disorder, your next step is to find a qualified person to investigate the possibility of this diagnosis. Contact your trusted healthcare provider for a referral to an Occupational Therapist. For children, be sure to work with a Pediatric Occupational Therapist. Your local Children’s Hospital may be an invaluable resource for this.
What does this mean for me / my child?
Sensory Processing Disorder can be debilitating. Children grow to be adults unable to cope in a work place due to activity, lights, sounds or smells. Children are unable to function in school, finding themselves in constant ‘trouble’ which is the result of continual outbursts because the fluorescent lights sting or a teacher wears a certain perfume. Social events where your child is unable to participate, constantly spinning, running into people or clawing to remove him or herself from the noise…To say SPD interferes with daily life is to fall short.
But…it’s not the end. There are a number of qualified Occupational therapists or therapy centers, such as the STAR Center in Greenwood Village, CO that provide services to help those suffering with SPD. Techniques are used, careful planning of programs can help children come through their extremes to find levels that are normal and manageable. It is workable. all is not lost. The first thing to do is also the most important, find help.
What are some resources?
Know of a SPD Resource you feel is invaluable? Please feel free to “Add A Resource” here.
Want to help support the SPD Foundation as a community? You can donate to help fund research and further therapeutic standards for the 1 in 20 children affected by Sensory Processing Disorder through a Community Effort to Support the SPD Foundation through GivingFirst.org.