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Making Sense of Sensory Processing Disorders in Children

Every time you touch, smell, hear, taste, or see something, that’s your sensory-processing system in action. Sensory processing is a term that refers to the way your nervous system collects messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate physical and behavioral responses. When a child has a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or a sensory integration disorder, their system is unable to properly process the sensations they experience, which can lead to daily challenges that will affect them for the rest of their life.

Children with SPD often have problems with motor skills and other abilities needed for success in school and childhood accomplishments. This often leads to social isolation, low self-esteem, and other social/emotional issues. Knowing the signs, symptoms, and treatment options for sensory integration disorders is essential in helping ensure your child has a happy, healthy future.

Sensory Processing Disorder Symptoms

Symptoms can generally be recognized when your little one is in their toddler years. Because of the nature of sensory disorders, parents will notice odd behaviors and severe mood swings. Sensory disorders are often misdiagnosed and misunderstood; teachers and outsiders may label your child as stubborn or disruptive when they are really just reacting to the overload of information from their outside world. Children often respond to the overwhelming amount of information with a fight-or-flight response (fleeing from the upsetting situation or throwing a tantrum).

When speaking to the Child Mind Institute, occupational therapist Dr. A. Jean Ayres described SPD as a neurological traffic jam, where certain parts that are jammed prevent the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret correctly.

These difficulties put children with the disorder at high risk for many emotional, social, and educational problems:

  • Finding it hard to make friends
  • Difficulty feeling part of a group
  • Poor self-concept
  • Academic difficulties/learning disabilities
  • Being labeled clumsy, stubborn, or disruptive
  • Difficulty with fine motor skills (coordination of small muscle movements)
  • Aversion to light and noise
  • A belief that their clothing is too tight

Depression, aggression, or other behavioral problems can occur because of the symptoms.

Note: A toddler who covers their ears at unpleasant noises (fire truck, fireworks, or horns) or a little one who demands lose-fitting clothing may have auditory or tactile sensitivities. But unless these sensitivities interfere with their lives and ability to perform daily tasks, they likely don’t have SPD.

The severity and nature of the disorder is based on the unique effects it has on the individual; no two people experience the same exact symptoms.

Sensory Processing Disorder Treatment

Untreated SPD in a child that continues into adulthood can affect their ability to succeed in relationships, work, and social environments. The recognition and proper diagnosis of sensory disorders is essential in helping a child succeed.

It’s essential to approach treatment with an understanding that the child’s brain is wired differently than those without SPD. They need to be taught and cared for in ways that are mindful of how they see the world and process information.

After an accurate diagnosis, they will benefit from a treatment program that includes:

  • Occupational therapy (OT) with a sensory integration approach (SI)
  • Listening therapy
  • Other therapies combined to complement the OT and SI
  • Home activities that fit easily into typical home routines
  • Advocating for your child at school and social events
  • Family-centered activities

The goal of OT is to promote appropriate responses to sensation in an active, meaningful, and fun way so your child can learn to behave more appropriately and to make life easier. When effective, treatment helps kids with SPD take part in the activities of childhood they should experience, like playing with friends, enjoying school, eating, dressing, and sleeping.

Auditory Processing Disorder

Like SPD, APD (auditory processing disorder) affects the way people differentiate subtle differences between sounds and words. If a child has APD, this could cause difficulty in speech and behavioral growth, as they could confuse one word for another. This is especially true in classroom settings (or daycare), because listening to complex information or listening in a noisy environment is often hard. Other times, all sounds are seen as equal, which makes communicating and responding to verbal direction challenging.

In kids APD can create emotional disorders that continue to affect them as adults, stemming from an inability to make sense of the world. Here are some facts to know about APD:

  • Two types of APD: hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity
    • Hypersensitive: when someone is too sensitive to noise
    • Hyposensitive: when hearing is dampened
  • Hypersensitivity can result in:
    • Distraction by sounds that others do not notice
    • Fear of or sensitivity to loud noises
    • Becoming startled or distracted by unexpected sounds
    • Frequently asking for quiet
  • Hyposensitivity can result in:
    • No response to verbal cues
    • Listening to music or TV at excessive volumes
    • Making noise for the sake of hearing noises
    • Difficulty understanding or remembering what is said
    • Confusion over where sounds are coming from
    • Talking through directions or instructions as they perform them

Children with symptoms of APD typically show no signs of neurological disease. Instead, the diagnosis is made on the basis of the child’s performance during auditory tests. There is no cure for APD, but treatment methods can greatly alleviate symptoms and lead to a normal life.