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Overview of Sensory Processing Disorder

Jump down to:
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Emotional, Behavioral, and Educational Impacts of SPD
Living With and Treating SPD
Barriers to Treatment

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing refers to our ability to take in information through our senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing), organize and interpret that information, and make a meaningful response. For most people, this process is automatic. We hear someone talking to us, our brains receive that input and recognize it as a voice talking in a normal tone, and we respond appropriately.

Children who have a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), however, don’t experience such interactions in the same way. SPD affects the way their brains interpret the information that comes in; it also affects how they respond to that information with emotional, motor, and other reactions.

For example, some children are over-responsive to sensation and so feel as if they are being constantly bombarded with sensory information. They may try to eliminate or minimize this perceived sensory overload by avoiding being touched or being very particular about clothing. Some children are under-responsive and have an almost insatiable desire for sensory stimulation. They may seek out constant stimulation by taking part in extreme activities, playing music very loudly, or moving constantly. They sometimes don’t notice pain or objects that are too hot or cold, and may need high intensity input in order to become involved in activities. Still others have trouble distinguishing between different types of sensory stimulation.

There are several types of Sensory Processing Disorder; each one may result in a number of different behavioral and sensory patterns.

Both children and adults can be diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder. As many as 5 percent of all children suffer from SPD.

Emotional, Behavioral, and Educational Impacts of SPD

Children with SPD may suffer from anxiety, depression, aggression or other behavioral problems. They may have problems with motor skills and other skills needed for school success. They may also be socially isolated and suffer from low self-esteem. Often they get labeled as a "difficult child."

These difficulties put these children at high risk for many emotional, social, and educational problems, including the inability to make friends or be a part of a group, a poor self-concept, academic failure, and being labeled as uncooperative, belligerent, disruptive, or out of control. Parents may be blamed for their children’s behavior by people who are unaware of this "hidden handicap."

Living With and Treating SPD

Most children with SPD are just as intelligent as their peers. Many are intellectually gifted. Their brains are simply wired differently. They need to be taught in ways that are adapted to how they process information and they need leisure activities that suit their own sensory processing needs.

When children with SPD are accurately identified, they can begin a program of occupational therapy (OT). OT, which is conducted in a sensory-rich environment and complemented with consultation at home and at school, helps these children to begin to adapt their responses to sensations and learn to perform and behave in a more functional manner.

Barriers to Treatment

Information and help for the children and families affected by SPD is still very limited. This lack of resources, combined with the fact that SPD symptoms are often similar to those of other disorders, often results in misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment for many children. And even when parents do obtain an accurate diagnosis and referral to appropriate therapy, most insurance companies do not cover the cost of the treatment.
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