What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

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Has your child recently been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder? Has your child ever had an over the top reaction to what seems to be a regular situation? Obviously, all kids can have challenging behaviour, however, some children have a hard time processing and tolerating certain physical, situational, environmental and sensory experiences. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is the inability to process sensory stimuli. That means it can lead to reactions and behaviours that are disruptive to the child and those around them. Difficulty in processing sensory input can leave both the child and the parents/caretaker overwhelmed, stressed-out and anxious.  

Child with sensory processing disorder covering ears and smiling while playing outside.

SPD has made its way into mainstream culture. A quick Google Search will lead you to lots of information. Since ASD children have more difficulty processing sensory input, they may become easily overwhelmed or overstimulated by situations (i.e. bright lights, loud noises, crowded spaced) or things (i.e. textures of food or clothing). Many children with ASD also experience sensory processing problems. But SPD is not limited to children with autism. Children with ADHD or no other diagnosis at all can have SPD. Every child who has sensory difficulties will have a challenging time until their needs are identified and addressed.

SPD: Hypersensitivity vs Hyposensitivity

Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological disorder that affects that way that a person receives and processes sensory information.   In everyone, messages from the senses are sent to the nervous system where they are processed. However, in SPD, this processing is faulty. This can lead to an uncomfortable experience for the individual. There are two kinds of sensory processing difficulties: hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity.

Hypersensitivity

Hypersensitivities can lead to oversensitivity and sensory avoiding. Several things can act as triggers to sensory meltdowns. For example, some of the triggers include crowded spaces, specific clothing, smells and textures of food, sudden or loud noises and bright lighting. 

Some hypersensitivities include:

  • Severe response to sudden loud or high-pitched noises
  • Easily distracted by background noises and movement
  • Does not like unexpected touching, hugs or cuddling
  • Uncomfortable around crowds or busy places
  • Fear of falling or getting hurt

Children that have sensory avoidance may do the following:

  • Become overwhelmed easily by places and people
  • Look for a quiet place when in crowded or noisy situations
  • Sudden noise can easily startle them
  • Bright lights can be bothersome
  • Clothing and fabric can make the child uncomfortable
  • Avoid hugging or touching others
  • Textures and smells of food can be bothersome
  • Transitions and change can be very upsetting and difficult

Hyposensitivity

Hyposensitivities can lead to under-sensitivity and sensory seeking. Often, sensory seeking children have a need for movement and have a lot of difficulty sitting still. They also like physical contact and pressure. 

Some hyposensitivities include:

  • A constant need to touch textures and people, even when it’s not appropriate
  • Lack of understanding of personal space
  • Uncoordinated and awkward movements
  • High pain threshold
  • Unable to sit still, constant movements
  • Rough and aggressive when playing with other kids

Children that are sensory seeking may do the following:

  • Constantly need to touch things
  • Be unaware of rough house playing and physical risk-taking
  • Have a high pain threshold
  • Constantly be moving and bouncing around
  • Show a lack of respect for other people’s personal space
  • Be easily distracted
  • Be clumsy and bumps into walls, trip over their own feet etc. 

It is important to realize that no two children are alike and each child’s sensory experience and coping mechanism are unique. And, your child may actually be affected by sensory issues from both categories. The journey to understanding your child’s sensory issues and ways of managing them can be an overwhelming task but there is help.  

Occupational Therapists can help

Occupational Therapists (OT) are trained in sensory regulation and can help to understand, identify and manage sensory stimuli issues. Accordingly, they can provide helpful tips, resources and supplies. For example, an OT might suggest a sensory diet to ease the anxiety and discomfort of your child. In effect, These strategies help children to manage their emotions and behaviours through specific activities and self-regulation techniques. 

Children with sensory processing disorder playing in sensory bins made by an occupational therapist.

Identifying and managing a child’s sensory difficulties will allow the child to cope with SPD. As a result, having a handle on their sensory triggers will provide them with the opportunities to use tools and strategies that will aid in their successful social interactions and day to day well-being.

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