Children with effective sensory processing abilities can organise information from their senses of touch, movement, sight, and sound and they can respond in a well-regulated manner. For instance, they may dance to music and enjoy movement and play.
However, children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), also known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction, are ineffective in processing sensory information. For example, children with SPD may dislike being touched, find tags on clothing uncomfortable, fidget excessively in their seats, or may seem accident-prone and fall easily. Children experiencing issues with their sensory processing may be tense, confused, and unhappy. When processing is disorderly, the brain cannot organise sensory messages which results in a reduced ability to respond to sensory information to behave in a meaningful, consistent way. This is of concern as children with SPD may experience difficulties functioning in life where SPD affects their movements, learning, behaviours, social interactions, and their levels of self-esteem.
Common symptoms of SPD
As a parent, how can I identify if my child has SPD?
Just like how Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) encompasses a wide variety of symptoms, SPD also exists on a spectrum. While SPD has yet to be included in diagnostic manuals, there are several signs in which you can identify if your child may have SPD:
Children may be over- or under-responsive to touch or movement. Children with SPD may be a “sensory avoider” where they may withdraw from touch, refuse to wear certain clothing, or avoid active games such as jumping, catching balls, and climbing. They may also be a “sensory disregarder”, where children feel a need to get moving, such as jumping on beds for a long time or rocking his/her body or head.
Children may be over- or under-responsive to sounds, sights, taste, and smell. Children with SPD may either cover their ears or eyes, be a picky eater, express discomfort at bright lights, be bothered by smells that others do not notice, or be oblivious to sensory cues, such as making loud noises or chew/lick non-food items.
Children may crave sensations. Sensory seekers may play in the mud, cram food in their mouths, mouth objects or clothing, crave being held or cuddled, or seek movement.
Children may have poor sensory discrimination. Children with SPD may not sense the difference between objects or experience. For instance, a child may be unaware of what he/she is holding until he/she looks, or unable to sense when he/she is falling or how to catch himself/herself.
Children may have unusually high or low activity levels where they are either constantly on the go, fidgeting excessively in their seats, or they move slowly, get tired easily, and show little interest in the world.
Children may have problems with posture or motor coordination where they display behaviours such as slouching, moving awkwardly, or they seem careless or accident-prone, such as falling off a chair or dropping dishes.
Overlapping symptoms of SPD with other disabilities
Many symptoms of SPD are similar to the symptoms of other disabilities, making it difficult to differentiate one from another. For instance, both the ASD and SPD diagnosis are associated with atypical sensory reactivity. Hence, if a child has autism, he/she may also have an over-responsivity to touch. Additionally, if a child is inattentive, has trouble staying focused, or is hyperactive and fidgets excessively, he may have SPD. Moreover, an alternative diagnosis could also be Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Treatment of SPD
Although there are common treatment strategies including occupational therapy, sensory integration therapy, and DIR/Floortime (Development, Individual differences, and Relationships), more research is still needed to establish the effectiveness of these treatment methods for sensory processing challenges. While there is an emerging body of research for the effectiveness of the treatment strategies for children with SPD, systematic reviews have shown that there are currently a limited number of good-quality research studies on the effectiveness of the treatments of SPD. Systematic reviews have also suggested that there is insufficient evidence to support the use of these treatment strategies.
In conclusion, it is important to note that SPD is currently not recognised as a distinct medical condition. The symptoms of SPD also have substantial overlaps with other diagnoses, and the current state of science has yet to find effective treatment strategies for children with SPD.
Written by Sylvia.
Kranowitz, C. S. (2005). The out-of-sync child: Recognizing and coping with sensory disorder. New York: Perigee.
Kranowitz, C. S. (2019, October 15). Sensory Processing Disorder Overview. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.smartkidswithld.org/first-steps/what-are-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-disorder-overview/
Lang, R., O’Reilly, M., Healy, O., Rispoli, M., Lydon, H., Streusand, W., . . . Giesbers, S. (2012). Sensory integration therapy for autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(3), 1004-1018. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2012.01.006
Pfeiffer, B., Clark, G. F., & Arbesman, M. (2017). Effectiveness of Cognitive and Occupation-Based Interventions for Children With Challenges in Sensory Processing and Integration: A Systematic Review. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 72(1). doi:10.5014/ajot.2018.028233
Pfeiffer, B., May-Benson, T. A., & Bodison, S. C. (2017). State of the Science of Sensory Integration Research With Children and Youth. American Journal of Occupational Therapy,72(1). doi:10.5014/ajot.2018.721003