Have you ever wondered why your child over reacts to loud noises, being touched, certain tastes and smells, or bright lights? Research has shown that at least 1 in 20 children experience sensory sensitivities or are affected by a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) (Ahn, Miller, Milberger & McIntosh, 2004). SPD is defined as a difficulty receiving, responding to and integrating sensory information necessary to generate appropriate behavioural responses.
Sensory processing difficulties are a common presenting issue at Quirky Kids, as children who are overwhelmed by sensory information often respond with dysfunctional habits and behaviours and may avoid certain experiences. For children with SPD, lights are often too bright, loud noises cause discomfort, and eating a certain food group may cause gagging. Parents often seek assistance for associated emotional, social and educational issues that commonly result from sensory imbalance. SPD can also commonly co-occur with many other psychological and neuro-developmental disorders such as ADHD, learning disabilities, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
What causes SPD in children?
The exact cause of a SPD like many other neurodevelopmental disorders, is yet to be identified (Miller, 2006). Preliminary research suggests that SPD may have a strong genetic component, with children born to adults on the Autism Spectrum, showing a greater likelihood of developing a SPD (Tomchek & Dunn, 2007). Males also appear to be at a higher risk of developing a SPD than females (Ahn et al., 2004).
Currently, there is some understanding of how the sensory pathways are disrupted in SPD. Our brain and nervous system operate like a computer system, transmitting messages from our senses to our body. These messages form the basis of muscle movement, coordination, learning, memory, emotion, behaviour, and thought. As with a computer, a malfunction in one part of the system typically affects other parts of the system. When there is a sensory processing dysfunction, the brain does not process or organise the flow of sensory information in a way that gives the child precise information about themselves and their world. As a result, learning can be challenging and children may have difficulty coping with the stress of daily sensory and organisational demands. This often results in additional behavioural difficulties.
What Sensory Processing Disorder looks like in children?
The symptoms of a SPD exist on a spectrum. SPD may affect one sense such as hearing or taste or it may affect multiple senses. Similarly children can be over or under responsive to sensory stimuli. There are several SPD subtypes:
- Sensory modulation: This is where children tend to respond more intensely to sensory input which frequently results in avoidance behaviour. Common symptoms include, withdrawing from light, gagging and resultant refusal to eat textured food, refusal to brush teeth , wash hair, or cut nails and an over-sensitivity to sound or visual stimuli (eg. the child may clasp their hands over their ears or eyes at loud noise or bright light)
- Sensory discrimination: This is where children have difficulties with recognition and interpretation of sensory stimuli. Common symptoms include, difficulty following instructions, problems finding images in a cluttered background, using too much or too little force, poor balance, poor sense of movement or speed.
- Postural-ocular disorder: This is where children have difficulties controlling or stabilising the body during movement or at rest. Common symptoms include poor posture control, poor equilibrium and balance, fear of heights.
- Dyspraxia: This is where children have difficulties in planning, sequencing unfamiliar actions and motor skills. Common symptoms include being accident prone, clumsy, resistant to new activities, and poorly coordinated with fine motor tasks.
Impact of Sensory Processing Disorder in children
Research has shown that many children with a SPD are more vulnerable to experiencing social, emotional and educational problems (Dunn, 1997). Children who are hypersensitive to sound and touch may experience intense affect, often feeling overwhelmed or impulsive. On the other hand, children who are hypo-sensitive may under-react to sensory information, which may be confused for lack of drive, a lack of empathy or being quite self-absorbed. Many kids with SPD are labeled as ‘clumsy’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘out of control’, and may have problems with the motor skills necessary for school success. Anxiety, depression, aggression, or other behavior problems can follow.
Treatments for children with Sensory Processing Disorder?
The good news is that there are effective treatments for a SPD.
- Psychological intervention can help children get used to sensations they cannot tolerate. Graded exposure to sensory stimuli and teaching coping skills can help overcome avoidance to sensory stimuli. Behaviour modification, using reward charts, can assist in encouraging appropriate responses to sensory stimuli. A Psychologist can also help with the emotional and behavioural difficulties commonly associated with sensory difficulties such as defiant behaviour, anxiety, or school difficulties.
- Occupational Therapy (OT) with a Sensory Integration (SI) approach is highly effective for sensory difficulties. Therapy generally takes place in a sensory rich environment sometimes called a ‘sensory gym’. The goal of OT is to foster appropriate responses to sensations in an active, meaningful and fun way so that a child can behave in a more functional manner. Over time (and with practise) the appropriate responses will generalise to other environments such as home and school.
- Making a table with many tools and toys may be helpful for children with SPD. A bowl of rice, a bag of beans or play dough can be highly effective tools to help balance sensory needs. Fill a bin with toys and objects of different weights and textures and let your child explore! See http://shopau.sensorytools.net/ for a list of sensory tools.
Ahn, R. R., Miller, L. J., Milberger, S., & McIntosh, D. N. (2004). Prevalence of parents’ perceptions of sensory processing disorders among kindergarten children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 58, 287–293
Dunn, W. (1997). The Impact of Sensory Processing Abilities on the Daily Lives of Young Children and Their Families: A Conceptual Model. Applied developmental theory, 9,4.
Miller, L., Fuller, D.A (2006). Sensational Kids: hope and help for children with sensory processing disorder. Putnam, 1st edition.
Tomchek, S., & Dunn, W. (2007). Sensory processing in children with and without autism: a comparative study using a short sensory profile. AJOT, 61, 190-200.