Sensory Processing Disorder – What Does it Look Like?

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Identifying sensory processing disorder in kids is challenging, in that the oft-associated symptoms present themselves in many different ways. These symptoms can be found alone, or ingrained within the disorder. Attention deficit/hyperactivity and autism spectrum are examples of how sensory processing disorder might manifest. Identification at a young age is critical so that intervention may take place before conditions have drastic effects on classroom behavior, learning and their overall ability to navigate the environment around them.

The most common result from missing diagnoses, is mistreatment and mismanagement from the world around them.

By definition, sensory processing disorder, sometimes shortened to SPD, is a neurological condition with physiological effects, where sensory inputs are not interpreted or managed appropriately. This is often seen in young people who react atypically; that is ‘different’ from an average subset of their peers.

Mislabeling often occurs from even the most well-meaning of people, who associate their behavior with ill-intention or perhaps attention-seeking. Ironically, most kids defined these ways are quite opposite in their desire to seek attention, preferring solitude rather, as a means of avoiding confrontation with such inputs.

With proper identification, kids can be set on a path for improved perception of the world, and coping mechanisms for negotiating the world in front of them.

In a day and age that is evolving and adapting like never before, doctors and researchers are behind studies that look at the causes, and in turn, solutions for SPD patients. While the exact cause has yet to be measured, it seems there is a hereditary nature surrounding it. Some research is also suggesting that there may be a connection to prenatal conditions and birth complications.

Research is also suggesting that as many as 5 percent of the population may experience some form of SPD and major physiological differences exist between those with Sensory Processing Disorder and those children who are developing at a more typical pace.

We also know that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system don’t function at normal levels in those with SPD.

So What is Being Done to Treat People with SPD?

The focus has been directed mostly at children, as a way to target a more developmental approach. Decades of anecdotal evidence is now emerging as sound science, where occupational therapists are providing exceptional and effective interventions for treating symptoms.

While clinical research continues, therapists all over the world are experimenting and testing tried-and-true methods of retraining the body’s senses. Sensory integration, for example, involves a controlled environment, where therapists can focus on helping patients manage a variety of inputs. Activities challenge patients without overwhelming them and present opportunities to reward appropriate or desired responses.

How a Sensory Diet Can Help

The goal is to allow the patient and their family to bring these activities and behaviors home, where they can continually refine the experience. The long term hope, is that patients are able to adapt to a variety of every-day environments in a calm and manageable way.

An emerging effort by OT’s is to introduce a “sensory diet” to young patients – a set of stimuli that appeal to the variety of senses. One recent trend within this, is the use of Sensory Diet Cards – activity cards that call upon children to perform or engage in activities that involve using their senses. While research on activity cards and sensory diets is still mixed, many OT practitioners utilize the very same activities in their facilities. The major difference is the very environment where activities are happening. Activity cards are a take-home treatment option, and possibly even just a fun way to engage kids who are otherwise struggling.

There is much left to do in the effort to bring peace to those who are struggling with a condition that is still misunderstood. Sensory Processing Disorder is most certainly something to continue to grow in our understanding. Where difficulty lies in understanding, hope lies in further research and the great effort committed by parents, doctors, therapists and of course our children.

For those struggling with Sensory processing issues, we encourage you to reach out to your doctor in identifying a local OT who has experience and expertise in improving patient wellbeing.