Sensory Processing Disorder

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

As most of us know, processing sensory information is a daily activity. It occurs without us even being aware of it. We are all constantly managing sensory information from our sight, our hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. Most of us are born with the ability to receive and process these sensations, and the ability organise them into correct responses such as reacting to a loud bang, or the smell of something burning. Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD, exists when the brain cannot organise and manage the sensory information that we are receiving. This information comes in the form of sound, touch and movement.

But are you aware that there are actually eight senses in which we rely on getting our sensory information? These are touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, balance, body and awareness. To be able to “sensory process”, we need to have the ability to organise and interpret the sensory information we receive from all these eight senses. This should be an automatic thing, but children who have SPD cannot do this. Their brains interpret the information they receive differently, and thus they react differently. For most people, this process is automatic. Children (and adults) who have SPD don’t experience this process in the same way.  SPD affects the way that their brains interpret the sensory information they receive.

So with this information, it is easy to come to the conclusion that that Sensory Processing Disorder is a complex disorder of the brain. What this means is that children who have SPD can misinterpret their everyday sensory information. Due to the lack of, or overload of information, they may seek out intense sensory experiences or they are unaware of what sensations they should be feeling and what other people experience. It also goes hand in hand with sensory-motor issues such as poor muscle development, delayed motor skills, clumsiness and stuttering.

So we can say that the term “sensory processing” includes:

1. The ability of our body and brain to take in information through our eight senses: the basic five (touch, smell, taste, vision and heading), plus the “hidden three”, proprioception (sensations of body parts in relation to each other), vestibular (sense of where body is in space relative to the earth’s gravity), and interioception (sense of internal organs)

2. Our ability to organise and interpret the sensory information we receive; and

3. Our ability to make a meaningful response to the sensory information coming into our brains.
Of course, with something as complex as SPD, it does not come in one form, but in different variants. There are the children that are over-responsive, those that are under-responsive, and those that crave sensory input (sensory seeking). It also appears in something called “Postural Control Disorder” and / or “Motor Planning Problems”. Let’s have a look at these.

Sensory Over-Responsivity
Children who are over-responsive appear to be more sensitive to sensory stimulation, in that their bodies feel sensation too intensely or too easily. With this occurring, it can make them seem they are getting bombarded with sensory information. When the body tends to get overwhelmed, the “fight or flight” response kicks in. When this happens it can cause parents a lot of angst as their child gets upset or unresponsive. So in order to avoid this happening, they can cover their ears to stop noises, and avoid being touched unexpectedly by withdrawing from people.

Sensory Under-Responsivity
If your child seems quiet and passive, and does not respond to certain stimuli, appear withdrawn, difficult to engage, or struggle to interact with other people, they tend to fall into this category of being under-responsive. When confronted with the possibility of becoming over-whelmed or receiving too much sensory information, they shut down and withdraw. So to stop this happening, they minimise everything they do.

Also, they can appear to enjoy deep pressure input, or intense tactile sensations e.g.: rubbing a piece of terry cloth, or silky ribbon while engaged in a sensory activity. As well as this, they can also be unaware of external senses, such as noticing items that are too hot or cold, or not realising pain in response to cuts, scrapes and falls.

Sensory Craving
I am sure all of us are aware of this at some time or another. We crave the feel of hot sun, an intense training session, or the mouth-watering smells of vinegar on hot chips, cakes baking etc. In children with this, they seem to have an almost insatiable desire for sensory input. They always seem to be constantly on the move, touching things, bumping into things, exploring things, tasting things, jumping over, onto or through things. They seem to not understand “personal space”, thus craving touch from people, or constantly touching others.

Postural Control Disorder
Put basically, these children have poor core strength. They can struggle doing simple tasks such as sitting up straight, standing up straight, pulling or pushing items, and they struggle to achieve certain motor tasks. This is also linked into the next one, Motor Planning Problems.

Motor Planning Problems
This can also be known as “dyspraxia”. Once again, they have trouble processing sensory information, and this manifests itself by making it difficult for them to carry out certain motor skill actions, such as catching a ball or riding a bike. Children who have dyspraxia can struggle planning a sequence of actions such as hop, skip and jump; performing new motor tasks; or forming a goal or idea. They can also come across as clumsy, accident prone and awkward. Due to this, they tend to avoid situations where this is apparent, but make up for it in other areas such as being highly developed with verbal activities and make-believe play.

So there you have it, the five different areas of SPD. It is a veritable minefield of responses and reactions. You have probably recognised certain aspects of your child in all five categories, and it also shows that it can be very difficult to get an assessment and diagnosis of SPD for your child. For this to be done correctly, all aspects of their life need to be examined by food therapists, speech therapists, psychologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists just to name a few.

It might be hard to believe, but one in twenty children can suffer some form of SPD, and as parents of premature babies, we seem to see the more common occurrences of it. There are still studies being conducted to link SPD with premature babies, but it seems to be that when a child’s sensory foundation is not established properly in early life, it can cause issues in later life. What seem like simple and normal activities for us and for the majority of children, – such as eating, dressing, making friends, giving or receiving a hug – can result in daily struggles which could affect them in social, emotional or academic areas.

So what aspects do you look for when thinking that SPD could be a factor influencing your child’s life? I have listed a few signs to look out for, but of course there are hundreds of different factors and influences. If there are any worrying signs or symptoms in your child relating to sensory input, it is best to get it checked out and assessed as soon as possible. Due to our children’s brains developing quickly, if we can change their brain wiring before certain habits are established, we can lessen the impact that SPD can have on their lives. So it is best to get it done as early as possible.

Some things to look out for are:-

• Has trouble with fine motor skills such as stacking blocks or simple jig-saw puzzles
• Might be accident prone
• Problems eating
• Problems sleeping
• Does not like being cuddled or stroked or held
• Hard to get into a normal and regular routine
• Does not like getting dressed, struggles getting dressed or disliking wearing certain clothes
• Can be difficult to toilet train
• Delays in speech
• Stuttering
• Cannot sit still
• Does not actively explore new activities or toys
• Has major temper tantrums and/or meltdowns
• Cannot handle a noisy or brilliantly lit environment.

One of the main symptoms of SPD can relate to feeding, and feeding issues. There are a few aspects that you can also keep an eye on such as;

• gagging on soft lumps,
• unable to swallow properly
• not able to transition from purees, age appropriate (normally 8-10 months)
• Cannot eat solid foods by around 1 year of age
• Meal-times are a constant battle, struggle and time of stress
• Cannot use a proper cup by around 18 months of age
• Not accepting a wide range of foods, but being pedantic on a particular item or texture by around 2 years of age. The experts say that they should be eating a range of up to 20 foods at this stage of life.

Or, relating to food issues, the other side of the spectrum is when children use food as their sensory seeking item. They cannot seem to switch off and you start to think that they have hollow legs. They over-eat to get the sensory information that they are craving.

So in conclusion, SPD is a challenge not only the children who are dealing with it, but the people and family in their lives. But it does not have to rule your life. There is help out there, and the knowledge is growing in regards to sensory issues. Just remember, as parents trust in your intuition that you think something may be not quite right with your child. SPD is not a disease, but it can have lasting impacts on a child’s growth and development in their outside world. There are sensory integration trained OT’s that can help with a diagnosis and treatment. Keep seeking the help you know and believe that your child needs. And in the words of world renowned occupational therapist, Dr. Lucy Miller – there is nothing wrong with children who have SPD; they are our “sensational kids”

Please join our Special Needs section on the forum if you would like to chat with other parents about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Article written by Roslyn Coles


The subject matter provided in these articles is strictly for informational purposes alone and should never be used in the place of a doctor’s advice. Please ALWAYS contact your doctor if you ever have questions or need advice in any area where medical advice is needed or medication is suggested.