What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Uncategorized Jan 10, 2021

Most of us go by our day to lives and do our daily living activities without a second thought.  We are able to take in and process unexpected conversations, tune out the sounds of irrelevant noise and enjoy a wide variety of new smells and tastes (sometimes a little too much). But what if the senses you rely on so heavily for these experiences fail or mislead you?  Individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder navigate our world with a different experience. 

STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder defines sensory processing disorder (SPD) as a neurological disorder in which the sensory information that the person perceives results in abnormal responses.  In other words, the information that a person with SPD receives from their senses goes into the brain but does not get organized into appropriate responses. A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D compared SPD to a neurological “traffic jam”.  This traffic jam could look like the child who hugs peers too hard because he has difficulty-differentiating pressure or adults who struggles to regulate themselves in a noisy work environment. By the way, I am one of these adults, I really find it difficult to focus in a noisy environment. 

To further understand SPD, it is important to identify the 8 senses that are included when learning and understanding the disorder. 

·     Visual (sight) 

·     Auditory (sound)

·     Olfactory (smell)

·     Gustatory (taste)

·     Tactile (touch)

·     Vestibular (Movement)

·     Proprioceptive (Muscle feedback)

·     Interoception (Internal messages)

Just in-case you haven't heard of a couple of these systems let me give you a overview:-

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, lay 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 coloring or writing. They may even become aggressive because this provides so much muscle feedback. 

 The interoception system helps determine the sensation of what our internal organs are feeling. An example would be feeling thirsty, hungry, body temperature, 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. Over responsive children are highly sensitive to sensory stimuli. An example may be a child who needs to utilize noise-cancelling headphones during noisy lunch times. Some examples of over responsive symptoms could be avoiding touch, gagging, dislike of playground equipment/fast movement, or frequently covering their ears. They may also experience difficulties paying attention, keeping focused and seek particular environments.

Under responsive children tend to under react to sensory input. I like to use the analogy of imagine your son or daughter standing behind a huge brick wall and the sensory stimulation has to get over the wall to reach them, unlike over responsive children who have a tiny wall and so they get bombarded by sensory input. An example of under responsive child may be the child who craves sensory stimulation by touching peers hair or objects in the room. Examples could also be attraction to certain sounds or frequent touching or smelling of objects and people. 

Sensory processing challenges can be difficult to navigate for the individual and their caregivers, but treatment options are available. Occupational Therapy with a focus on sensory processing has shown to be the most appropriate treatment for sensory processing issues. Occupational therapists can work with caregivers to develop a treatment approach that is unique to the individuals needs. Other treatments that may be helpful for children, teens and adults with sensory challenges include: play therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy and ABA services. If you or someone you love is impacted by sensory processing issues please take the time to educate yourself and gain a better understanding of the world through their experience.

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