sensory processing autism

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder is more than difficulty coping with bright lights and loud noises.
The clinical definition, according to WebMD 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 as 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.”

SPD is so much more than just an “over sensitivity”. For some children on the spectrum, it can also mean that their bodies aren’t sensitive enough and may even get hurt because they don’t feel pain. Sensory Processing Disorder, in the very basic of terms, really means that there’s a breakdown of how the child is receiving and filtering stimulation. I’ll share a few examples below.

Over-Stimulated

Imagine you’re meeting your besties after work. You’ve been looking forward to this all week, but you’ve been fighting a bit of a cold all day. You wished you felt better, but you really want to see your friend and have a girls’ night out. At the restaurant, the voices echo so loud that you’re having a hard time paying attention. The waiter is taking forever and the table next to you is eating something that just stinks. Suddenly you realized you’ve missed half of the conversation because you’ve been focusing on everything around you.

As adults, we’ve learned skills to help us cope with busy environments as well as filter out stimuli that we don’t need. In the scenario above, even though you weren’t feeling well and losing concentration, you were still able to acknowledge the situation and possibly even tell your friends you weren’t feel well and rescheduled.

For children on the spectrum, being able to deal with situations like this can be completely overwhelming and require some serious recovery time. Short trips to busy environments, using sunglasses, and headphones can help some children soften their experience.

Under-Stimulated

Now imagine you’re finally at the spa about to cash in that gift certificate you’ve had for months. The masseuse comes in and it’s the weakest massage you’ve ever had in your life. Leaving completely disappointed, you decide to shrug it off and stop at the bakery (because it’s your cheat day anyway) and grab a delicious looking muffin and coffee. Sadly again, the muffin is tasteless and the coffee is bland. Getting back in the car, you turn up the radio but can barely hear the notes, even though the dial says it’s on the loudest setting.

Children with sensory processing disorder can seem as if they are overdoing things, but it’s because their bodies aren’t receiving the stimuli. They might constantly jump or run into things, put their face directly on the tv or iPad, or even try to hurt themselves. It’s all because they aren’t feeling sensations the same as others. Using weighted blankets, sand or rice bins, and brushing techniques can all help regulate their bodies.

When children are young, we can help teach them new ways to make their bodies and mind feel more relaxed and centered. Check back next week as I break down Sensory Seeking and Sensory Defensive and great organizing activities for sensory regulation.

Here’s a great insight about SPD from a child’s point of view:

*If you have any concerns about your child, please discuss with their pediatrician or contact your local school district or Early Intervention center for an evaluation.*

Previously posted at Hudson Valley Parent Magazine.

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