The Truth About Sensory Processing Disorder
When Washington, D.C., mom Sara Durkin's son was 3, she got a call one day from his preschool. "They said he wasn't sitting in circle time, he wasn't sharing as much as he should, and he liked to be the center of attention," she recalls. There were other issues as well. He didn't like group activities, although he did like to play one-on-one with other children. He was busy and physical, but he didn't want to ride a bike and seemed a bit clumsy.
The school suggested that Durkin take her son to see an occupational therapist. "They said that he might have sensory processing disorder or something like that," she recalls. Occupational therapy (OT) helps adults do better at their job and daily tasks. OT helps children be more comfortable and successful at play and in school.
Durkin and her husband thought he was just being a 3-year-old boy, and that in some ways -- such as seeking the company of adults and enjoying the limelight -- he was simply taking after his father, a national TV news correspondent. They elected to skip OT.
Then within a few months she heard from several other D.C. families. Their sons, all around the same age, had also been referred for occupational therapy (by different schools) with the suggestion that they might have sensory processing (or integration) disorder (SPD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). "I have one neighbor who's a speech pathologist and another who's an audiologist, and they both told me [SPD] is one of the most over-diagnosed disorders these days," Durkin says.
SPD: Real Disorder or Trend?
What's going on here? Is there something really wrong with our kids -- especially little boys? Or is "sensory processing disorder" the new ADHD --that is, a diagnosis of the moment that may well apply to certain kids who truly need professional help, but could also be over-applied to turn typical young-child behavior into an illness?
It's true that behavioral and developmental disorders are on the rise among America's children. One in every six children now has been diagnosed with a developmental disability, such as autism, ADHD, or learning disabilities, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's 1.8 million more children than were diagnosed with similar conditions in the late 1990s. And nearly twice as many boys as girls have these conditions.
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.