Sensory processing disorder, SPD, is a neurological condition that affects people of all ages. It’s now recognized as one of the most common chronic neurological disability in school-aged children. An estimated one out of 20 school-aged children have SPD, but the actual number may be much higher because it’s tough to diagnose.
The symptoms can range from mild to severe, ranging from difficulties with remembering everyday life events (such as what day to do chores) to hypersensitivity (a sound drives them crazy).
The Symptoms of SPD
Symptoms of sensory processing disorder are hard to identify because they are so diverse. They can range from hypersensitivity or being overly sensitive to sounds, textures, tastes, smells, sights, and feelings.
One person might have difficulty with everyday tasks, while another may not do anything without getting overwhelmed by their senses. Therefore, sensory processing disorder is categorized as either “sensory seeking” or “sensory avoiding.”
A child with SPD will often move towards their senses which creates an overload of stimuli even if it may be too much. The child will then avoid the sensory input that is causing them distress.
Common Symptoms for Sensory Seeking
- Excessive head banging
- Headbanging according to the child’s needs (hunger, tiredness)
- Eating or drinking too fast
- Chewing on non-food items
- Scratching skin surfaces
- Rubbing eyes, lips, ear canals, or other body openings
- Picking at skin excessively
- Approaching all new stimuli
- Getting in the face of others
- Rocking extremities or whole body back and forth (similar to the movement of a rocking horse)
- Being understimulated, bored
Common Symptoms for Sensory Avoiding
- Becoming “wiggly” when being held, dressing struggles begin. Can’t stand tags on clothing or seams in socks.
- Pushing away, throwing off touch
- Crying, screaming, screeching when touched or approached for a hug. May fight cuddling and physical games such as “you’re going to get me” can be a struggle
- Becoming stiff and sometimes rigid
- Running away from things they do not like
- Irritability if touched in the wrong spot
- Argumentative at dinner or when having to do homework
- Losing homework, known places in rooms they are familiar with, and objects easily. This is due to under-stimulation, where they forget what has happened recently.
Signs your child may have SPD
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) can vary from person to person, but some common signs your child may have SPD are:
- Aversions (e.g., refuses to wear specific clothing types or textures of clothing, such as wool or synthetic fibers), and over-sensitivities (becoming easily agitated by sounds).
- Oversensitivity to pain, temperature, and touch; experiencing strong reactions when feeling touched.
- Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another.
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
- Easily distracted by continuous, loud sounds.
Having sensory problems can make a child feel different from his peers, which may lead to social isolation, frustration, tantrums, and other behavior problems.
How does someone typically get diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder?
One of the ways that someone can get diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder is through a sensory integration evaluation.
The purpose of this evaluation is to consider how an individual’s nervous system responds to sensory stimuli through the five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste).
An occupational therapist then provides recommendations for accommodations that will help support the individual in their daily life.
Prevention and treatment options for parents and teachers of children with SBT
The treatment for children with sensory processing disorder involves a multidisciplinary approach. Parents and teachers can positively impact this process by being attentive to the child’s needs.
This includes being aware of the need for a quiet environment to help reduce auditory hypersensitivity in children with a sensory processing disorder. Playing repetitive sounds in a noisy room will cause over-responsivity in many children with sensory processing disorder and those without it.
In addition, there are certain accommodations that parents and teachers can make for these children. The most common accommodation is placing carpets on hardwood floors or adopting other flooring options such as wood or vinyl flooring to avoid noisy surfaces.
Parents and teachers should use materials that do not overwhelm or irritate the child, such as plain black paper for drawing.
Parents and teachers can play a key role in identifying symptoms of sensory processing disorder early by observing changes in behavior, both in environments that are new to them and familiar ones.
Incorporating a Sensory Diet
A sensory diet is a way to start addressing the symptoms of children with a sensory processing disorder.
For example, a child may have tactile sensitivities. A sensory diet can help them by adding activities that include brushing on textured clothing, petting a dog, or rubbing a water balloon.
There are also options for auditory sensitivities, such as listening to rain on a metal roof or low sounds of waves crashing against the shoreline.
Visual sensitivities can be addressed by using low lighting or wearing sunglasses outdoors.
The parent or teacher should be creative when creating a sensory diet for children with a sensory processing disorder. This will depend on individual differences, including the child’s preferences and emotions, which are expressed through reactions to their environments.
If you think your child may have a sensory processing disorder, it’s important to get them evaluated by a professional. If the evaluation confirms that they have SBD, there are many treatment options available for parents and teachers.