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The Truth About Sensory Processing Disorder

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What Is SPD? continued...

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.

"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."

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