What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Carol Stock Kranowitz, M.A. 
This is a guest post from Carol Stock Kranowitz, the keynote speaker at our recent Parenting Matters conference.

Some kids respond to unremarkable experiences in notably unusual ways. They may resist going places and being with people. They may reject hugs, or crave them constantly. They may go, go, go, or lack get-up-and-go. They may dress sloppily, eat only pasta, drop and break everything, whimper or rage over “nothing,” insist on doing things their way, and act immaturely. With their late and slow, or rapid and intense, or otherwise “off” responses, they seem out of sync with other people and the world.

Often, these children are beautiful, creative, kind, and so, so smart.  Parents and teachers wonder why they just won’t get dressed, eat carrots, fingerpaint, ride a bike, or play with other children. 

The reason that out-of-sync kids don’t do what others do easily is not that they won’t  — it’s that they can’t. A likely cause of their bewildering behavior is sensory processing disorder (SPD). SPD occurs in the central nervous system when one can’t react typically to sensory messages coming from one’s body and environment.

Sensory Processing: When Senses Are “In Sync”

We have eight senses, with receptors in our head and body.  The senses’ job is to merge (or, integrate) sensory information for these vital purposes:

  • self-protection, to survive
  • discrimination, to learn
  • satisfaction, to enjoy life
  • function, to do whatever we gotta do!

These are our eight senses:

  • The tactile sense (touch) provides our nervous system with information about touching and being touched. We receive tactile messages through skin receptors, all over the body.
  • The vestibular sense (movement) provides information about how our body moves through space. Gravity tries to pull us down; our job is to defy it. Receptors in our inner ear tell us where our head is in relation to the ground, and if we’re balancing. The vestibular sense coordinates all other senses to keep us calm and alert. It helps us self-regulate our arousal level so we can adapt to the ups and downs of daily life.
  • The proprioceptive sense (body position) provides information about where our body parts are, how they bend and stretch, and how much force or pressure we use. Receptors are in our muscles and joints.
  • The visual sense (sight) provides information about what we see. The visual sense includes eyesight (visual acuity), telling us that we see black lines on the chart; and visual processing, telling us what the black lines denote — the letter E.
  • The auditory sense (sound) provides information about what we hear.
  • The olfactory sense (smell) provides information about scents.
  • The gustatory sense (taste) provides information about flavors.
  • The interoceptive sense (internal organs) provides information about sensations coming from internal body organs as well as from the environment.  This is our “Spidey sense”; when we detect something odd, scary, or just-not-right, we get goose-bumps or our hair stands on end.

As we grow, so do our sensory processing capabilities — our “sense-abilities.” Sensory processing starts the progression from what an infant can do to what a preschooler can do to what an adult can do. Hands-on, concrete, sensory-motor experiences — especially in an outdoor, natural environment — are the foundation of skills necessary for doing everyday tasks in a three-dimensional world.

Sensory Processing Disorder:  When Senses Are “Out of Sync”

Everyone processes sensations. People with SPD do it inefficiently. Their central nervous system mismanages bodily and environmental sensations. People with SPD have difficulty responding in an adaptive way to sensations that others hardly notice or easily take in stride.

SPD has six types: 

  1. The “sensory avoider” cannot tolerate certain, or most, ordinary sensations. 
  2. The “sensory disregarder” does not react to ordinary sensations.
  3. The “sensory craver” never gets enough of certain or all sensations.
  4. The “sensory jumbler” confuses sensations and cannot judge their relative importance.
  5. The “sensory slumper” has difficulty with balance, holding positions, and staying alert.
  6. The “sensory fumbler” is poorly coordinated, disorganized doing everyday tasks, and dismayed by novel challenges having multiple steps.

Red flags of SPD are unusual responses to sensory input, especially touch and movement. One sense, or several senses, or all the senses may cause problems. Different combinations of avoiding, craving, and misjudging sensations may occur in one person. SPD may be a little of this and a lot of that, and the issues may differ from day to day, from place to place.

Sensory avoiders — people with what is called “overresponsivity” — are all around us, and the prevalence of SPD is rising. A study of general education children found that 16.5% have sensory overresponsivity by age 8 (Ben-Sasson, et al., 2009). 

“What really helps people understand overresponsive sensory problems,” says Temple Grandin, the well-known autism advocate, “is asking them to imagine extreme examples of how it feels. Imagine wearing scratchy sandpaper clothes that make you itch all over, all day. Imagine washing your face in a bucket of perfume. Imagine feeling you’re going to fall off a cliff when you walk a few steps. Imagine sitting right near the stage, next to a rock band’s amplifier.”

Being deluged by sensations is to be expected once in a while — but all day, every day? Feeling clumsy, “dumb,” or worthless — all day, every day?  For people whose senses are out of sync — who struggle to learn, participate, or feel good in their daily doings — life can be frustrating, lonely, and even painful.

Fortunately, parents, teachers, and others dealing with children’s out-of-sync behavior can learn to spot SPD symptoms. Occupational therapists specializing in sensory issues can provide appropriate therapy. Recognizing, respecting, and treating children and adults with sensory challenges will help them lead satisfying, productive lives, at home, at school, and in the world.

The Communication, Occupational and Sensory Treatment (COAST) Clinic at Bradley Hospital offers comprehensive evaluation and treatment for children and adolescents who have difficulty participating in age-appropriate activities due to physical, neurological, cognitive, behavioral, communication or sensory processing challenges.

For more information on our Parenting Matters conference on March 24 where Carol will be the keynote speaker, please visit our website.

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