In honor of October being National Sensory Processing Awareness Month, we're answering six common questions about Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD.
Have you ever found yourself feeling distracted or anxious in a loud setting? Do you prefer certain tastes (sweet, salty) or textures (crunchy, smooth) of food? Do you get dizzy easily, or love upside-down roller coasters?
Each of us has different responses to sensory input, based on our unique sensory processing. Sensory processing is the neurological process by which sensations from many different types of sensory receptors (i.e. eyes, ears, skin, joints, muscles, gravity and movement receptors) are organized for use.
Sensory processing affects our motor abilities, how we organize our behavior, work, and play skills, and how effectively we adapt to the demands of our environment. It also impacts our emotional regulation.
For some, sensory signals are poorly organized or aren't detected. This results in sensory processing disorder, also known as "SPD".
According to the STAR Institute (2018), "Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), exists when sensory signals are either not detected or don't get organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist, educational psychologist, and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, likened SPD to a neurological 'traffic jam' that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and many other problems may impact those who do not have effective treatment."
At this point, the exact cause(s) of SPD are unknown. Preliminary research studies suggest three possible causative factors: genetics, prenatal conditions and birth trauma, and environmental factors.
Delivery factors, such as prolonged labor, prematurity, or fetal distress could play a role.
As with anything, our life experiences shape and impact our sensory systems. Environmental factors such as abuse, poverty-related risks, and newborn hospitalization may also contribute to SPD (Miller, 2006, pp. 283-290).
SPD is not yet recognized as a formal medical diagnosis. However, an occupational therapist with advanced training in sensory processing can identify it. Occupational therapists often use a combination of standardized testing as well as clinical observations when evaluating someone who demonstrates signs of SPD.
Standardized tests provide information regarding the child's fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social skills, and their responses to various types of sensory input.
Occupational therapists combine this information with their own observations regarding the child's behavior during testing. They assess a child's balance, coordination, planning, and reactions to sensory input while they are completing a variety of sensory and motor activities.
SPD can be classified into three subtypes: sensory modulation disorder (SMD), sensory-based motor disorder (SBMD), and sensory discrimination disorder (SDD).
Children with SMD may be more responsive, less responsive, or seek out sensory input more than their peers. They tend to have difficulty modulating, or regulating, the type and amount of sensory input their bodies need.
Motor skills are affected in individuals with SBMD. This could result in poor motor planning (difficulty learning and/or executing new tasks) and/or poor postural control.
Treatment of SPD looks different for each client, depending on their unique needs.
Current research supports intense "bursts" of occupational therapy sessions, such as 2-3 times per week. Therapy typically includes sensory-based motor activities tailored to support the child's needs and goals.
Children with SPD often have difficulty regulating their emotions and behaviors. This is referred to as self-regulation. Occupational therapists can help children learn to self-regulate more independently, by teaching them how to read their body cues and develop appropriate coping skills for challenging situations.
Client and parent education is essential to the treatment process. An occupational therapist works with the family to determine which types of sensory activities would be beneficial at various times throughout the day. This allows families to incorporate specific sensory activities into a child's daily routine, to help support them in a variety of settings (such as home, school, or the community).
Occupational therapists may also recommend environmental modifications for school and/or home. For example, if a child seeks vestibular (movement) input, he may benefit from the option to stand while completing work at school.
Yes! The most effective treatment for SPD is early intervention. Unfortunately, many children are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.
Left untreated, SPD can continue into adulthood and may impact a person's career, relationships, and community involvement.
With proper evaluation and treatment, individuals with SPD can learn valuable coping skills and even impact their sensory processing at a neurological level.
It is important to raise awareness about SPD in our communities, so these children can be better understood, supported, and included.
Miller, L. J. (2006). Sensational kids: Hope and help for children with sensory processing disorder (SPD). Perigee.
STAR Institute. (2018). Sensory Processing Disorder. Retrieved October 11, 2018, from https://www.spdstar.org/