What is Sensory Processing?
Sensory processing the how the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. A persons ability to be successful in daily activities relies on how the nervous system processes the sensations the body is experiencing while engaged in the activity. When a child is learning to sit or walk, the nervous system is processing information its receiving and creating a response, such as balancing the body and moving the correct muscle needed to perform the task. Eating, playing basketball or balancing on a bike all require the nervous system to interpret information appropriately.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that exists when sensory signals do not get organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other issues may result if the disorder is not treated effectively.
Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder have a broad spectrum of severity. While most of us have occasional difficulties processing sensory information, for children and adults with SPD, these difficulties are chronic, and they disrupt everyday life. Sensory processing is the foundation for which movement and learning is built upon.
What Sensory Processing Disorder Looks Like?
Sensory Processing Disorder can affect children in only one sense, just touch or just sight or just movement or in multiple senses. One person with SPD may over-respond to sensation and find clothing, physical contact, light, sound, food, or other sensory input to be unbearable. Another might under-respond and show little or no reaction to stimulation, even pain or extreme hot and cold. In children whose sensory processing of messages from the muscles and joints is impaired, posture and motor skills can be affected. These are the “floppy babies” who are slower to meet developmental milestones and the kids who seem “out of control” on the playground. Still other children exhibit an appetite for sensation that is in perpetual overdrive. These kids often are misdiagnosed and inappropriately medicated for ADHD.
Sensory Processing Disorder is most commonly diagnosed in children, but people who reach adulthood without treatment also experience symptoms and continue to be affected by their inability to accurately and appropriately interpret sensory messages.
Adults with Sensory Processing Disorder may have difficulty performing routines and activities involved in work, close relationships, and recreation. Because adults with SPD have struggled for most of their lives, they may also experience depression, underachievement, social isolation, and/or other secondary effects.
How Sensory Processing Disorder is Treated?
Children with Sensory Processing Disorder are just as intelligent as their peers. Their brains are simply wired differently. They need to be taught in ways that are adapted or modified to how they process information.
Children with Sensory Processing Disorder benefit from a treatment program of occupational therapy (OT) with a sensory integration (SI) approach. Listening therapy (such as The Listening Program) and other complementary therapies, such as diet and nutrition can be most effective when combined with Occupational Therapy.
A sensory integration approach during an Occupational Therapy session typically takes place in a multi-sensory rich environment, such as an “OT gym”. During OT sessions, the therapist guides the child through fun activities that are subtly structured so the child is constantly challenged but always successful.
The goal of Occupational Therapy is to foster appropriate responses to sensation in an active, meaningful, and fun way so the child is able to behave in a more functional manner. With time the child is able to transition these responses to other environments such as home, school and community functions. The most effective Occupational Therapy treatment incorporates parent involvement. Occupational Therapy and parent collaboration is critical. Parents and caregivers are on the “front line” with their child. Understanding their child’s sensory challenges and implementing sensory activities into their child’s daily schedule, a sensory diet, is essential. Effective Occupational Therapy and parent collaboration enables children with SPD to take part in the normal activities of childhood, such as playing with friends, enjoying school, eating, dressing, and sleeping.
How SPD Affects Family?
The impact on families with a child who has SPD are multifaceted. SPD symptoms can have an affect on individual relationships as well as family engagement in personal and social routines. Families with a child who has SPD often feel excluded from activities that other families typically engage in. As a result, a families outside support system may become very limited or non existent. Parents may suffer from exhaustion and high levels of stress due to the extra demands of care taking.
Siblings of a child effected by SPD are also impacted. Family life is generally dictated by how the SPD can can tolerate the environment. Younger siblings often miss out on social experiences with other typically developing children because of this. Siblings sometimes, experience awkward social interactions with the SPD child. Children with SPD who experience hypo-sensitivities may often knock or bump into siblings, as well as children with hyper-sensitivities who have a diminished sense of personal space/ body awareness may squeeze or unintentional hurt siblings due to seeking additional sensory input. It is important for parents to provide behavioral interventions, and establish clear boundaries that apply to all children in the family.