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The Truth About Sensory Processing Disorder

What Is SPD? continued...

"Remember, we all engage in sensory seeking behavior (such as tapping a pencil or chewing a pen cap while concentrating) and sensory avoidance (I personally hate touching cold, mushy things like raw meat). It is when these needs or aversions interfere with our functioning and cause dysregulation that we have a disorder," Kawa adds.

But not everyone is convinced that SPD is a distinct disorder at all -- many suggest it is only a symptom related to other behavioral or developmental disorders, like autism and ADHD. Even those who do think it exists are cautious about applying the SPD label.

"I see it all the time in kids, and I do refer for further evaluation by occupational therapists," says Kawa. "But it does not yet appear in any of our diagnostic manuals, and it's not something like depression that has been well researched and defined with a large body of evidence."  

"It can be a legitimate diagnosis," Healy adds, "but I also think that a lot of highly sensitive kids get lumped with a label that's not to their benefit. In extreme cases, it's clear there's a problem that needs help. But in milder situations, it's very unclear if it makes sense to label these kids."

Helping a Child With SPD

What if you realize that the school might be on to something? A referral to an occupational therapist can pretty much never hurt, says Shaikh. "This isn't medication. It doesn't have side effects," he says. "There are a lot of adaptive, common-sense things that a good occupational therapist can do to help a child with sensory issues."

For example, perhaps your son has been fighting a lot at recess. The occupational therapist may find that he has a problem with knowing where his body is in space, so when another child bumps into him, he lashes out.

"A good OT will give him exercises to better develop that positional sense," says Shaikh. "In general, with young kids, the more 'nonmedical' work -- teaching and training -- that can occur, the better off you are."

But you shouldn't take a referral from a school straight to an occupational therapist, advises Melanie Fernandez, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of The Parent-Child Interaction Therapy Program at New York City's Child Mind Institute. Instead, consult your pediatrician, and perhaps seek an evaluation from a child psychologist or psychiatrist.

"That diagnosis will help identify the most effective approach," she says. "For example, the real issue might turn out to be ADHD, which occupational therapy doesn't treat. An evaluation may also be a way to establish what the condition isn't -- ruling out SPD or ADHD, but still identifying support that can take place in the classroom to help your child."

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