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The Truth About Sensory Processing Disorder

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.

"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.

Some examples: A typical child may cover her ears when the train with its loud whistle rockets by; a child with SPD may fall into hysterical fits of terror. A typical child may wrinkle his nose and say that Grandma's perfume is stinky, but a child with SPD might refuse to play at someone else's house because he thinks they all smell yucky. (The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation has a checklist of symptoms on its web site.)

The concept of SPD has been around for a long time -- it was first described in the 1960s by occupational therapist A. Jean Ayres, PhD -- but the diagnosis gained traction in the late 1990s with the publication of The Out-of-Sync Child, by educator Carol Stock Kranowitz. The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation claims that as many as 1 in every 20 people -- both children and adults -- in the United States is affected by the condition. It often seems to be worse in children, though.

"Sensory dysregulation tends to get better with neurological maturation, but in many cases, it does not go away altogether," says Allison Kawa, PsyD, a Los Angeles child psychologist. "Most people learn coping strategies as they grow up. For example, people with sensitivity to light often find fluorescent lights irritating. As adults, they might choose to bring floor lamps into their office to avoid having to use them.

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