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Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

The Sensory Processing Foundation defines SPD as follows:

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a complex disorder of the brain that affects developing children. These children misinterpret everyday sensory information, such as touch, sound, and movement. Some feel bombarded by sensory information; others seek out intense sensory experiences or have other problems. This can lead to behavioral problems, difficulties with coordination, and other issues. Children with SPD are often misunderstood and labeled as aggressive or clumsy. They often are socially isolated and have trouble in school. Effective treatment is available, but far too many children with SPD are misdiagnosed and not properly treated.

"Sensory processing" refers to our ability to take in information through our senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing), organize and interpret that information, and make a meaningful response. For most people, this process is automatic. When we hear someone talking to us or a bird chirping, our brains interpret that as speech or an animal sound, and we respond to that information appropriately.

Children who have a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), however, donít experience this process in the same way. SPD affects the way their brains interpret the information they take in and also how they act on that information with emotional, attentional, motor, and other responses.

Some children with SPD are over-responsive to sensation. Their nervous systems feel sensation too easily or too intensely and they feel as if they are being constantly bombarded with information.

Consequently, these children often have a "fight or flight" response to sensation, a condition called "sensory defensiveness." They may try to avoid or minimize sensations, such as by avoiding being touched or being very particular about clothing.

These children may:

  • Respond to being touched with aggression or withdrawal
  • Fear movement and heights, or get sick from exposure to movement or heights
  • Be very cautious and unwilling to take risks or try new things
  • Feel uncomfortable in loud or busy environments, such as sports events, malls
  • Be very picky eaters and/or overly sensitive to food smells

These children may be diagnosed with Sensory Over-Responsivity.

Some children are under-responsive to sensation. Their nervous systems do not always recognize the sensory information that is coming in to the brain.

As a result, they seem to have an almost insatiable desire for sensory stimulation. They may seek out constant stimulation or more intense or prolonged sensory experiences, such as by taking part in extreme activities or moving constantly.

Some behaviors seen in these children include:

  • Hyperactivity as they seek more sensation
  • Unawareness of touch or pain, or touching others too often or too hard (which may seem like aggressive behavior)
  • Taking part in unsafe activities, such as climbing too high
  • Enjoying sounds that are too loud, such as a very loud television or radio

These children may be diagnosed with Sensory Under-Responsivity.

Other children with SPD have trouble processing sensory information properly, resulting in problems with planning and carrying out new actions. They have particular difficulty with forming a goal or idea or developing new motor skills. These children often are clumsy, awkward, and accident prone.

These children may have:

  • Very poor fine motor skills, such as handwriting
  • Very poor gross motor skills, such as kicking, catching, or throwing a ball
  • Difficulty imitating movements, such as when playing "Simon Says"
  • Trouble with balance, sequences of movements, and bilateral coordination
  • A preference for familiar activities or play, such as lining up toys
  • A preference for sedentary activities, such as watching TV, reading a book, or playing video games

These children may get frustrated easily and may seem manipulative and controlling. Some may try to compensate with an over-reliance on language and may prefer fantasy games to real life. They also may try to mask their motor planning problems by acting like a "class clown" or avoiding new group activities.

These children may be diagnosed with Dyspraxia (sensory-based) Motor Planning Disorder.