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Children's Health

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The Truth About Sensory Processing Disorder

SPD: Real Disorder or Trend? continued...

But what's not entirely clear is how much of this rise is due to a real increase in behavioral problems, and how much can be attributed to greater willingness to diagnose children who seem more active or distracted than others, but who in the past might not have received a "behavioral disorder" label.

"Schools often make these calls with good intentions; often they want to find out what's going on with a child who isn't 'fitting in' with the regular model of schooling," says Maureen Healy, MBA, a child development expert who has advised public school programs in New York, Connecticut, California, and North Carolina.

Unrealistic Expectations for Boys

This phenomenon may be occurring partly because we ask much more of preschool-age children than in previous decades. "We've compressed the curriculum more and more over the years, to the degree that what we're expecting of younger children is developmentally inappropriate," says John Schinnerer, PhD, a former school psychologist now in private practice in California and the author of Guide to Self: The Beginner's Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought.

"Not being able to sit in circle time for 20 minutes or resist touching the person sitting 6 inches away from them? That's totally normal for a 4- or 5-year-old boy. I'd say that for probably more than half of young boys, school just isn't made for them."

And why are parents of boys getting most of these phone calls? That may have to do with how boys' brains are wired. The prefrontal cortex -- the brain's "CEO," which helps us to make decisions, organize, analyze, and resist impulsive behavior -- matures more slowly in boys than girls.

"Boys are just antsy and full of energy, and part of that is because the 'brakes' in their brain aren't fully wired yet," says Ahsan Shaikh, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist for EMQ FamiliesFirst, a mental health and social services agency with offices throughout California.

What Is SPD?

Sensory processing disorder has been compared to a "neurological traffic jam," in which sensory signals received by the brain -- about everything from the taste and texture of a food to the intensity of a touch -- become garbled and disorganized. People with SPD may be oversensitive (or undersensitive) to stimulation of any of the five senses.

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