Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a term that has gained widespread usage in schools across America over the last few years. The problem is that it isn't easily understood, there is no magic cure and oftentimes adults without proper understanding of this challenge suggest kids have it. For example, one of my child clients is super bright and doesn't sit still easily in his preschool circle. His teacher suggested to his parents that he be checked for SPD - but they wondered if he might be bored? Have attention deficit issues? Or just be a regular preschool boy?
Sensory Processing Disorder - Defined
Like many neurological challenges, sensory processing disorder is best understood as existing along a continuum from mild to more severe. Some kids display a heightened sensitivity to their senses such as light and sound where they either withdraw or act out. While other kids, may be under-sensitive so they bang into things not aware of their surroundings. The best definition of Sensory Processing Disorder comes from the SPD Foundation, it says:
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD, formerly known as "sensory integration dysfunction") is a condition that exists when sensory signals don't get organized into appropriate responses.
In other words, a child with SPD finds it difficult "to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks" (SPD Foundation). The key point here is that a child with a sensory challenge like SPD cannot perform everyday tasks - their senses are either over or underwhelming them.
For example, I had a client whose seven year-old could not go outside any time of year without sunglasses or she would scream. Her sensitivity to light was acute and this interfered with everyday living versus solely being something that she preferred. Alex, the preschool child, mentioned in the first paragraph didn't have SPD - he merely was bored with story time and was also allergic to some of the breakfast foods given in preschool (thus causing hyperactivity).
The point is that SPD isn't black and white (despite everyone wanting it to be). It exists along a continuum of symptoms whether it is an over or under sensitivity to light, sound, temperature, food, spatial relations or visual stimuli. In addition, there is a high propensity for children with SPD to have other emotional, social, mental or behavioral challenges - like ADD.
Sensitive or SPD
Children that truly have SPD are experiencing difficulty in their daily lives. They cannot lead regular kid lives because of their sensory processing is challenging their system - some scream at mild sounds, cannot sit still under regular school lighting or tolerate traditional smells like peanut butter and jelly without throwing a full-out tantrum.
Such is a big contrast to highly sensitive children (see earlier blog) whose preferences regarding the world are keenly tuned.
Highly sensitive children are sensitive to lights, sounds, smells, words and their environments because they are born with heightened awareness. They can lead regular lives attending school, playing with other kids and expressing their creativity. For example, Melissa loves to draw and paint near the window with the natural light streaming in her classroom. This is her preference. She is sensitive to nature and light - it makes her happy. But if there is no window she would still paint. Her sensory experience is organized and heightened.
The goal with highly sensitive children is to guide them to see their sensitivity as a strength and use this strength to successfully navigate their worlds. The goal with sensory processing disordered children is to guide them to handle their disorganized sensory input into more organized and healthier responses so they can lead full lives.
If you are a parent, educator or clinician then you are likely familiar with Sensory Processing Disorder. It is different than "sensory seekers" that are those kids that look for ways to feel their senses intensely like getting more hugs, and playing in the water longer. In addition, it is sharply different than kids that have organized sensory input but just heightened awareness of their senses called highly sensitive children. True sensory disordered children have difficulty doing regular activities due to their disorganized responses to sensory input.
Today, I have found the label of "Sensory Processing Disorder" used frequently and sometimes without any real understanding as to what it means. The good news is the most common treatment is occupational therapy so there is no drugs involved just a "re-training" of how to respond to sensory input in positive and healthy ways. The downside is that once you get labeled SPD it's a challenge to un-label a child so my suggestion is to "get smart" on what's really going on, look at a child holistically and if appropriate - then get a child screened for SPD.
By Maureen Healy
Growing Happy Kids, LLC
Follow me on Twitter: mdhealy
Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation
Highly Sensitive Children