Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. 

Formerly referred to as sensory integration dysfunction, it is not currently recognized a a distinct medical diagnosis.

Some people with sensory processing disorder are oversensitive to things in their environment. Common sounds may be painful or overwhelming. The light touch of a shirt may chafe the skin.

Others with sensory processing disorder may:

  • Be uncoordinated
  • Bump into things
  • Be unable to tell where their limbs are in space
  • Be hard to engage in conversation or play

Sensory processing problems are usually identified in children. But they can also affect adults. Sensory processing problems are commonly seen in developmental conditions like autism spectrum disorder.

Sensory processing disorder is not recognized as a stand-alone disorder. But many experts think that should change.

Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder may affect one sense, like hearing, touch, or taste. Or it may affect multiple senses. And people can be over- or under-responsive to the things they have difficulties with.

Like many illnesses, the symptoms of sensory processing disorder exist on a spectrum.

In some children, for example, the sound of a leaf blower outside the window may cause them to vomit or dive under the table. They may scream when touched. They may recoil from the textures of certain foods.

But others seem unresponsive to anything around them. They may fail to respond to extreme heat or cold or even pain.

Many children with sensory processing disorder start out as fussy babies who become anxious as they grow older. These kids often don't handle change well. They may frequently throw tantrums or have meltdowns.

Many children have symptoms like these from time to time. But therapists consider a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder when the symptoms become severe enough to affect normal functioning and disrupt everyday life.

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Causes of Sensory Processing Disorder

The exact cause of sensory processing problems has not been identified. But a 2006 study of twins found that hypersensitivity to light and sound may have a strong genetic component.

Other experiments have shown that children with sensory processing problems have abnormal brain activity when they are simultaneously exposed to light and sound.

Still other experiments have shown that children with sensory processing problems will continue to respond strongly to a stroke on the hand or a loud sound, while other children quickly get used to the sensations.

Treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder

Many families with an affected child find that it is hard to get help. That's because sensory processing disorder isn't a recognized medical diagnosis at this time.

Despite the lack of widely accepted diagnostic criteria, occupational therapists commonly see and treat children and adults with sensory processing problems.

Treatment depends on a child's individual needs. But in general, it involves helping children do better at activities they're normally not good at and helping them get used to things they can't tolerate.

Treatment for sensory processing problems is called sensory integration. The goal of sensory integration is to challenge a child in a fun, playful way so he or she can learn to respond appropriately and function more normally.

One type of therapy is called the Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-based (DIR) model. The therapy was developed by Stanley Greenspan, MD, and Serena Wieder, PhD.

A major part of this therapy is the "floor-time" method. The method involves multiple sessions of play with the child and parent. The play sessions last about 20 minutes.

During the sessions, parents are first asked to follow the child's lead, even if the playtime behavior isn't typical. For example, if a child is rubbing the same spot on the floor over and over, the parent does the same. These actions allow the parent to "enter" into the child's world.

This is followed by a second phase, where parents use the play sessions to create challenges for the child. The challenges help pull the child into what Greenspan calls a "shared" world with the parent. And the challenges create opportunities for the child to master important skills in areas such as:

  • Relating
  • Communicating
  • Thinking

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The sessions are tailored to the child's needs. For instance, if the child tends to under-react to touch and sound, the parent needs to be very energetic during the second phase of the play sessions. If the child tends to overreact to touch and sound, the parent will need to be more soothing.

These interactions will help the child move forward and, DIR therapists believe, help with sensory issues as well.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 31, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Van Hulle, C.A. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, January 2012.

Schaaf, R.C. Frontal Integration Neuroscience, March 2012.

Gavin, W.J. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, July-August 2011.

SPD Foundation web site: "About SPD."

DIR Floortime web site: "Floortime: What It Really Is, and What It Isn't."

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