A Parent’s Guide To Sensory Processing Disorder

Lauren Saccone with her daughters
Lauren Saccone with her daughters

From the day my daughter was born she reacted very strongly to the world around her. She held her breath the moment a cold cloth touched her skin. She only slept swaddled, in a blackened room, while a sound machine played white noise. She could not tolerate abrupt applause or singing “Happy Birthday.”

By nursery school, teachers labeled her “spoiled, intense and rigid” as she melted down repeatedly over minor upsets or during transition times. I was told by countless people that she would grow out of it, but, as she got older, her sensitivities increasingly interfered with daily life. At a loss, I turned to a relative who worked in special education and she mentioned three words that changed our lives: Sensory Processing Disorder. Being a special education teacher myself, I was familiar with children who had trouble with sensory processing, but most commonly, these children had autism. My daughter does not. So, how could this be possible?

Sensory processing is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives and processes messages from the senses. Most people are born with the ability to process this information from their senses and organize it into the “right” adaptive responses. In the 1960s, an occupational therapist named Dr. A. Jean Ayres began to research the relationship between sensory processing and behavior in children with disabilities. She believed that when sensory signals are not organized properly, it causes social, emotional, motor or functional problems. In simpler terms, Dr. Ayres compared Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD, to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents the brain from interpreting sensory information correctly. SPD can present itself in a variety of ways depending on which sensory systems are working inefficiently. Research indicates that our sensory systems go beyond our five basic senses to include three others: vestibular (sense of balance and movement orientation in space), proprioception (muscle and joint sense) and interoception (internal body awareness). Some children can be over-responsive to their environment, which can produce a “fight or flight” response to sensory stimuli. Others may be under-responsive and not notice or seek out sensations. Many, like my daughter, can show combinations of both.

While SPD is commonly associated with other conditions such as autism or ADHD, it has yet to be recognized by the medical community as a stand-alone disorder. However, there are several ways to help a child with SPD. An occupational therapist trained in sensory integration can evaluate a child for the disorder.

One such facility is Sensational Development in Massapequa where I took my daughter three years ago. A sensory evaluation confirmed that my daughter had SPD. Based on the results of an evaluation, an occupational therapist can design a sensory diet, which is a personalized activity plan that provides the sensory input needed to stay focused and organized throughout the day. While therapies can take place in a treatment facility, sensory input is something that has to be offered to a child continuously and therefore must be implemented both at home and in school. Children with SPD also benefit from behavioral therapy where they can learn coping skills and self regulation tools.

My daughter is now 6 and has since been diagnosed with ADHD in addition to SPD. However, a sensory diet has been the most efficient treatment to minimize her hyperactive impulses. She is no longer the overly emotional child who cannot handle simple changes in routine. She is now a happy and confident child, which was all we hoped for when we started this journey three years ago. It takes nonstop work and endless amounts of patience, but her success is worth it.

For more information about SPD, visit the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation at www.spdfoundation.net.


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