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Sensory Processing Disorder in Children￼
As we develop from birth into adulthood, we are constantly challenged by the various inputs we receive from the world around us. It’s as if we are on an endless journey of receiving, learning, and processing input. Some of the inputs that come our way are easily processed given their secure context, but other inputs, perhaps, not so much.
We have all struggled with making sense of the world around us. But for certain children, even ordinary input may create a difficulty due to the trouble they have processing the information they receive from their senses (whether taste, smell, hearing, sight, or touch). For some children this creates a hypersensitive reaction and for others, just the opposite, a hyposensitive reaction.
This sensitivity may show up in all types of reactions often involving a radical and inexplicable shift in the child’s behavior. For example, perhaps you have noticed your child has an unusual aversion to noise, light, or to clothes and shoes that are too tight. Maybe they have an extraordinarily high or low pain threshold. Or perhaps they may be unusually clumsy and have difficulty with fine motor skills.
Medical Definition and Diagnosis
Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses.
Sensory processing disorder is not currently recognized as a distinct medical diagnosis, though it has often been referred to as “sensory integration dysfunction”.
However, sensory issues are often considered a symptom of autism because many people on the autism spectrum experience hypersensitive or hyposensitive reactions. But this classification is inadequate as not everyone who wrestles with sensory processing disorders is on the spectrum. Some have ADHD, OCD or developmental delays. Some even defy a proper diagnosis at all.
Research has provided insight but no solid answers as to the cause. Some studies suggest a strong genetic component associated with children who are hypersensitive to light and sound. Other research reveals that children with sensory processing problems have abnormal brain activity when they are simultaneously exposed to light and sound.
Origins of Research
Sensory processing disorders were first identified by occupational therapist A. Jean Ayres, PhD. In the 1970s, Dr. Ayres introduced the idea that certain people’s brains can’t do what most people take for granted: process all the information coming in through seven (not the traditional five senses) to provide a clear picture of what’s happening both internally and externally.
Along with touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight, Dr. Ayres added the “internal” senses of body awareness (proprioception) and movement (vestibular). The proprioceptive system tells the brain where the body is in relation to other objects and how to move. The vestibular receptors, located in the inner ear, tell the brain where the body is in space by providing the information related to movement and head position. These are key elements of balance and coordination, among other things. When the brain can’t synthesize all this information from the “seven” senses coming in simultaneously, it has been referenced as a traffic jam in your head, with conflicting signals quickly coming from all directions, so that you don’t know how to make sense of it all.
Children with hypersensitive sensory issues tend to avoid strong sensory stimulation as they get overwhelmed easily. Practically, they are having a neurological “panic” response to the sort of everyday sensations which the rest of us take for granted.
Children that tend to have a hyposensitive sensory issues need more stimulation. They have difficulty understanding where their body is in relation to other objects and may bump into things and appear clumsy. They tend to move around and crash into things and people, and even tend put inedible things in their mouths, including rocks, sticks, paint, etc., just for the added stimulation. They have trouble sensing the amount of force they’re applying, they may rip the paper when erasing, pinch too hard, or slam objects down. And since they crave input, they are in constant motion and love jumping, bumping, crashing, and spinning activities, as well as deep pressure such as that provided by tight bear hugs.
Many children with sensory processing disorder start out as fussy babies, and as they grow, they simply do not handle change well and tend to exhibit increasing signs of anxiousness and inexplicable reactions to ordinary things. They may even repeatedly throw tantrums or have meltdowns that are so intense and so strong and seemingly so impossible to stop once they have started. The consequences of such sensory disturbances have been shown to lead to poorer adaptive and more disruptive behaviors impacting educational attainment and socialization.
Frequency in Typical Developing Children
In a recent study, with a sample of 788 typically developing children aged 3–14, sensory processing difficulties were found to be experienced by as many as 11%. Yet, the study also illustrated that difficulties with general sensory processing abnormalities tend to decrease with age in typically developing children. In addition to age, there are also several individual and environmental factors that may influence the sensory developmental path, such as parenting, interventions (such as therapy), and schooling.
Treatment: Sensory Integration
Treatment for sensory processing problems is called sensory integration. The goal of sensory integration is to challenge a child in a fun, playful way so they can learn to respond appropriately and function more normally regardless of the circumstances they may face.
Treatment for sensory processing disorder typically includes occupational therapy, introduction of a sensory diet, and sensory integration challenges that retrain the brain to respond differently to stimulation from the senses.
Many Occupational Therapists (OT) use a sensory integration approach that begins in a controlled, stimulating environment, and focuses on making it easier for both the parents and the child to manage in day-to-day life. OT’s use fun, stimulating activities to challenge patients’ senses without overwhelming them or linking stimulation to feelings of failure. Over time, the goal is to extend these learned, appropriate responses outside of the clinic to home, school, and life.
The goal of all these therapies is to improve everyday life skills, including:
- How a child touches and is touched
- How a child moves and is moved
- Bilateral coordination (using both sides of the body together)
- Eye motor skills
Some therapy even helps a parent “enter” their child’s world. For example, if a child is rubbing the same spot on the floor over and over, the parent does the same. Then the OT helps parents create challenges for the child that pull the child into the parent’s “world.” The challengers create opportunities for the child to master important skills in areas such as relating, communicating, and thinking. These sessions are tailored to the child’s needs. For instance, if the child tends to under-react to touch and sound (hyposensitive), the parent needs to be very energetic during the play sessions. If, however, the child tends to overreact to touch and sound (hypersensitive), the parent will need to be more soothing and gentler.
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) supports a full spectrum of approaches and interventions used in Occupational Therapy practice as part of an intervention plan that focuses on the participation of the client, including the appropriate use of sensory integration therapy (SIT). AOTA’s practice guidelines and official documents recommend that OT practitioners using SIT collaborate and coordinate with educational and interdisciplinary teams and other professionals to maximize participation in daily environment. AOTA also recommends that practitioners use clinical reasoning, existing evidence, and outcomes to create a comprehensive, individualized approach for each client, rather than using isolated, specific sensory strategies.
Solace Pediatric Healthcare Occupational Therapists
If you are concerned that your child may suffer from sensory processing issues, Solace Pediatric Healthcare offers experienced Occupational Therapists who come to your home or are available through Telehealth Therapy to work with your child. Every therapy session is based on your child’s specific needs and no two therapy plans are alike.
Our mission is to support you and your family in providing professional clinical evaluations, treatment options, resources, and information so you feel empowered to make the best decisions for your child and family. We provide therapy in a nurturing environment that promotes those we serve to grow, learn, play, and thrive while receiving care in the security of their home. We work with the family, physicians, teachers, and specialists to create the best individualized plan for your child consistent with the methodologies supported by AOTA.
When you or your physician contacts Solace Pediatric Healthcare with a sensory processing disorder concern, we will schedule a comprehensive evaluation with one of our therapists in your home. They will thoroughly discuss the evaluation, recommendations, options, individualized goals and assist you in working with our child at home.
We also believe in continuity of care and seek to ensure that in-home therapy is provided by the same clinician who is familiar with your child’s individualized needs, goals, and overall progress. If you would like to speak with someone who can help you to get started, please do not hesitate to contact us at 303-432-8487, option 1 or visit our parental referral page to get in touch for an evaluation of your child.
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