Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the individual in question doesn’t respond in a normal manner when they are exposed to certain sounds, smells, textures, or other external stimuli. This might include hypersensitivity to music or hyposensitivity to strong stimuli that should evoke a response.
Also known as SPD, the Sensory Processing Disorder concept evolved out of an older concept known as “Sensory Integration Dysfunction. It is more common in children, although it can affect adults. It also has a strong prevalence in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Though for some individuals, diagnosing SPD can be a challenge, as there are no official criteria set in place to delineate SPD. However, there are some relatively standard treatments for sensory processing disorder, which is a specific type of therapy known as sensory integration therapy.
What Are The Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder?
An individual with sensory processing disorder typically doesn’t respond normally to stimuli that others would not be affected by in one of three distinct ways.
Some might be over-responsive or “Hyper-Responsive” to things like bright lights, loud noises, sudden sounds, or sustained noises. Even things like the sensation of scratchy or itchy fabrics such as wool or clothing tags against their skin can evoke a hyper-response. There are even some individuals with sensory processing disorder who can’t withstand the pressure of a hug, or being in a crowd of tightly packed people.
Many times, over-responsivity to external stimuli can cause a child with ASD or an adult with ADHD or PTSD to experience anxiety, or have trouble engaging in routine activities. This can include pronounced difficulty adapting to new situations. For children, over-responsive reactions can sometimes be so mild that they go unnoticed.
Though there are other times when they can be debilitating to the point that the child must leave the situation immediately. This in turn can make it hard for a child with SPD to engage socially with other kids in noisy or distracting environments like arcades, school dances, or music concerts.
Often times children with SPD end up developing behavior problems, as a result of the imbalance in one or more of their senses. In a lot of these SPD cases, the symptoms can also be linked to poor motor skills. This might manifest as a child who has trouble holding a pencil or other simple childhood tools. They might also have trouble climbing stairs or have low muscle tone. He or she also may have language delays.
Children with SPD might have a delayed or a muted response to external stimuli. This is known as under-responsivity or hypo-responsivity. This can include things like not overtly reacting to the pain of a scraped knee or showing discomfort in extreme cold or heat.
Sometimes the brain chemistry of a child with sensory processing disorder doesn’t adequately process messages from the muscles or joints. This manifests as impairment in their motor skills or posture, which might make them appear to be clumsy.
Another form of SPD is known as sensory craving. This is where the affected child feels driven to seek out stimuli. They might even feel this craving so strongly that they start to act out inappropriately.
The following are common symptoms of decreased sensitivity in children with SPD. This includes things like:
- They struggle to sit still
- Thrill-seeking & dangerous behaviors
- The ability to spin without getting dizzy
- Struggling to pick up on social cues.
- Failure to recognize personal space.
- Chewing obsessively on things
- Seek visual stimulation
- Trouble sleeping.
Forms Of Anxiety & Sensory Processing Disorder
A lot of children with sensory processing disorder will experience anxiety and might have other disorders or comorbidities that manifest as a result. This includes things like:
Sensory Modulation Disorder
This is the more common form of SPD and often manifests as a child who has difficulty regulating their responses to stimulation. Many of these patients are either under or over-responsive. This can lead to abnormal sensory seeking, or hiding from stimulation, with little gray area in the extremes.
Dyspraxia – Sensory-Based Motor Disorder
This is a coordination disorder that influences the development of fine motor skills. Many younger children with dyspraxia seem to be slow to reach common milestones such as walking or feeding themselves. As they age, children with dyspraxia might also struggle with things like writing, drawing, and certain physical activities. This form of SPD often leads to the child having difficulty with tasks that require precise motor control. This includes fine motor skills such as holding a pencil, using utensils, sitting up straight, or balancing everyday activities. A lot of children with sensory processing disorder may have trouble with one or all of the categories in differing severity.
The impaired perception of body position and movement that often occurs in conjunction with sensory processing disorder can also lead to postural issues. Left unchecked this can cause muscle imbalance problems and might lead to conditions affecting their back.
Sensory Discrimination Disorder
This manifests as a general inability to detect subtle differences in visual, tactile, auditory, and physical input. It makes it hard for the child to know how to respond and may present as a failure to respond normally to common external stimuli. This type of SPD tends to lead to confusion about the sources of stimuli. These children have challenges understanding where they are in space. This leads to clumsiness, as well as things like trouble noticing when they are hungry.
Under Sensitivity in Sensory Processing Disorder
In some older children with SPD, the symptoms can affect their sense of self-esteem and could cause low self-confidence. This can easily lead to social isolation and an increased risk of developing depression.
What Causes Sensory Processing Disorder In Children With ASD?
At this time, it’s not entirely clear what causes sensory processing disorder in children or adults with autism spectrum disorder. Though a growing body of research has suggested SPD may be inherited, related to prenatal care, or possible birth complications. There is also evidence to suggest that there are certain environmental factors that might also play a role.
Though the research into genetics offers up the strongest evidence that researchers can track scientifically. There is also a growing body of research that suggests the brains of people with SPD might be structured and wired differently than those of others.
How Is Sensory Processing Disorder Diagnosed?
It can be challenging to officially diagnose a child or adult with a sensory processing disorder. A lot of practitioners regard it as a singular condition and it can be equally hard to find clinics that specifically treat it. It’s also worth bearing in mind that sensory processing disorder is not specifically recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Rather any sensory challenges are simply listed as being a “Possible Symptom of Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
Most of the time the initial step in confirming a child has SPD starts with directly observing behaviors that suggest the disorder. With proper documentation, you can then seek a more clearly delineated diagnosis for SPD.
How Is Sensory Processing Disorder Treated?
Professional treatment of most cases of sensory processing disorder involves some type of therapy or a strategic therapeutic technique known as “Sensory Integration Therapy.” This approach includes a targeted “Sensory Diet” which features a daily menu of individualized, supportive sensory strategies and a variety of activities, equipment, and accommodations designed to stimulate and/or desensitize the individual.
This is a process that needs to be guided by a licensed therapist. Oftentimes in the case of a child with autism spectrum disorder, the therapist is included in the child’s support team. This helps ensure that everyone who supports the child is fully aware of the challenges, as well as the therapeutic techniques necessary to improve their sensory processing disorder responses.
It’s important to note that this is typically a long process, with no quick fixes. Consistency throughout the child or adult’s support team plays a critical role in treatment success outcomes.