Sensory Processing Disorder - MetroFamily Magazine
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Sensory Processing Disorder

by Julie Dill

Reading Time: 6 minutes 

It cannot be escaped; every day, every hour and every minute we are responding to stimulus. Our surroundings give us no choice. We respond to the smell of frying bacon, the sound of dogs barking, the bright ray of light shining through a window. We are constantly responding to our environment. But for those with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), this constant state of response can be overwhelming.

Terri’s Story

When her son Isaac was about 2½ years old, local mom Terri began to notice a change in his behavior. While Isaac was a smart, sweet, loving and fun child, repeated behaviors such as putting things in his mouth, teeth grinding and repeated meltdowns made Terri uneasy.

Terri was also concerned about his lack of fine and gross motor skills, his inability to color in the lines and his specific daily demands regarding his clothing (he has to wear a specific pair of boxer shorts, pants and socks), meals (he will eat only a limited variety of foods) and expectations (his sippy cup must start out completely full). Any of these situations could easily provoke a meltdown.

Some thought it was the result of poor parenting, lack of discipline or too much coddling, but Terri knew it was something more. And that’s when she learned about Sensory Processing Disorder.

What is SPD?

As defined by the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, SPD is a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses. According to the foundation’s website, “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.”

Because of this difficulty processing information through their senses, those with SPD may seem to react inappropriately (either too much reaction or too little) when faced with stimulating sights, sounds or touches. SPD may also affect motor skill development.

According to the SPD Foundation, an SPD diagnosis begins with a screening process that may lead to further testing. There can be reluctance on the part of physicians to offer a diagnosis of SPD because the disorder is still considered to be controversial.

Treatment for SPD: What Works

Simply put, most children diagnosed with SPD are just as intelligent as their peers, their brain is just wired differently. According to the SPD Foundation, once a child has been diagnosed, “they benefit from a treatment program of occupational therapy (OT), with a sensory integration approach. This approach typically takes place in a sensoryrich environment sometimes called the OT Gym. During the sessions, the therapist guides the child through fun activities that are subtly structured so the child is constantly challenged but always successful.”

To address the problems that Isaac faces, Terri has worked with an occupational therapist and also works closely with Isaac’s teachers. “Without the teachers’ help, it would be very difficult,” said Terri. They all work to keep communication open so successful strategies may be shared by all. She emphasized, “One on one communication with the teacher is vital.” Terri also found success in routine. She used a chart with picture icons to help Isaac gain an understanding of daily tasks that needed to be accomplished, such as brushing teeth. “[The chart] was a lifesaver,” said Terri.

Disabilities and Mental Health Administrator for Head Start (Denver), Christopher R. Auer, MA, has recently co-authored a workbook for children with SPD with his wife, Michelle M. Auer, MS, OTR, an occupational therapist. The workbook, Making Sense of Your Senses, is written from their unique perspectives, as parents of a child with SPD and child development experts. When asked for the number one suggestion for parents of SPD children, Christopher recommended, “Take a step back and look at the situation as a whole. It’s important for parents to focus on their child’s strengths. Then, build from those strengths.” Christopher further suggests that parents take a team approach when facing SPD by involving the child’s primary physician, family, teachers and other school officials such as an occupational therapist. “There is not a quick fix; it is ongoing work, and it is an ongoing process.”

The Auers provide forty activities to help develop coping skills, awareness and understanding that apply to both home and school. The book is inclusive; each activity is prefaced with a realistic scenario describing characters experiencing sensory-related situations. The book also includes help for staying safe from bullies, how to find help and how to stay organized.

Occupational Therapy

Lorraine Auchter, OTR/L, is an Occupational Therapist at Sensational Kids, a therapeutic organization that assists children with SPD. Auchter says that if you are unsure if your child has SPD, “observable behaviors are key,” as there are typical behaviors that children with SPD may display. Behaviors to watch for include:

• During infancy, babies with SPD may be fussy or hard to calm. She may not like to be rocked or be bothered by sounds such as an airplane or vacuum cleaner.

• A toddler with SPD sometimes can’t stand messiness or could be overwhelmed with noise such as people singing “Happy Birthday.”

• Toddlers may prefer one particular item of clothing over all others, because it feels good on their skin. “Skin is the largest sensory organ we have,” said Auchter.

Auchter suggests trying different techniques to help your children broaden their comfort zone. “Find their favorite activity then gradually work on desensitizing.” For example, if a child enjoys being outdoors but is intimidated by the monkey bars, you may try to simplify the overwhelming task of crossing over to the other side by encouraging them to hang on just one bar in the beginning, then gradually build from there. “It can make a difference on their functional skills,” said Auchter.

Local child psychologist, Dr. Lisa L. Marotta, Ph.D., P.L.L.C., explains SPD as “extreme responsiveness to sensation.” She said that in some cases SPD may look like ADD because these children are disturbed by sensation. Dr. Marotta recommends making adjustments to the child’s daily routine to help them neurologically settle themselves.

“These children benefit greatly from recess activity, which gives them the opportunity to use gross motor skills,” according to Dr. Marotta. “A bike ride before school can also be beneficial, engaging in body movement. The key is to help them regulate.”

Everyday objects can be triggers for children with SPD, but simple modifications—like removing labels from clothing—can help bring comfort. In the classroom, Dr. Marotta has found “fidgets” to be helpful. “Things they are in control of—like squeezy balls, erasers, worry stones, Playdoh and chewing gum—can help.”

Like Dr. Marotta, Auchter agrees that physically active movement helps children to “reset,” so when faced with more tedious tasks, such as classroom assignments, they are better able to focus. Once a child has been referred to Sensational Kids for therapeutic treatment, parents are asked to comple a standardized questionnaire. The child then takes a standardized test that assesses fine motor skills, balance and gross motor skills. In addition, the therapists observe the child’s attention span and their willingness to try new things. The occupational therapist works with parents and teachers to identify the specific needs. As a team, they try to get the child regulated to make those difficult encounters easier.

For example, the occupational therapist may work to help the child be successful at a task such as tying a shoe, which may be overwhelming to a child with SPD. They take it one knot at a time, literally, so the task is doable. In school, that may translate to taking a large assignment with multiple questions and cutting it into two smaller sheets. It’s still the same number of questions, but the assignment doesn’t appear to be so overwhelming all at once. Auchter stresses the importance of “working together as a team to find those strategies that work towards desensitizing.”

There’s no question the daily demands are great while raising a child with Sensory Processing Disorder. Like all parenting challenges, it is important to find support, information and success. Although Terri has just begun to unlock the world of Sensory Processing Disorder, she suggests to other parents who may be having similar experiences to “guard yourself with lots of information and resources and pray, pray, pray.” She encourages others that “There’s a lot of trial and error, and you will make mistakes; however, it does get easier as you learn more.”

Ten Fundamental Facts About SPD

Excerpted from Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children With Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) by Lucy Jane Miller, PhD, OTR. Used with permission.

1. Sensory Processing Disorder is a complex disorder of the brain that affects children and adults.

2. Parent surveys, clinical assessments, and laboratory protocols exist to identify children with SPD.

3. At least one in twenty people may be affected by SPD.

4. In children who are gifted and those with ADHD, Autism, and fragile X syndrome, the prevalence of SPD is higher.

5. Studies have found a significant difference between the physiology of children with SPD and children who are typically developing.

6. Studies have found a significant difference between the physiology of children with SPD and children with ADHD.

7. SPD has unique sensory symptoms that are not explained by other known disorders.

8. Heredity may be one cause of the disorder.

9. Laboratory studies suggest that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are not functioning typically in children with SPD.

10. Preliminary research data support decades of anecdotal evidence that occupational therapy is an effective intervention for treating the symptoms of SPD.

Julie Dill is a National Board Certified Teacher from Oklahoma City

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