The roar of a passing train. The feeling of a warm, fuzzy sweater on your arms. The taste of a cold ice-cream sandwich. The bright colors of a rainbow. Experiencing each of these senses requires complex activity in your brain’s nervous system. But for as many as 15 percent of school-aged kids, the brain doesn’t receive the information it needs to interpret the information received from the senses, making it difficult for them to tolerate many sounds, sights, experiences, and feelings.

This condition, which is called sensory integration disorder or sensory processing disorder (SPD), affects many aspects of everyday life. And whether one sense or several are affected, when various sights, sounds, and feelings bombard SPD sufferers, they struggle to process everything. As a result, behavioral problems, trouble in school, anxiety, and depression are common.

Many of the symptoms of SPD are similar to those of autism and other neurodevelopmental diseases. In toddlers, common symptoms include intense tantrums, resistance to cuddling, wild mood swings and odd behaviors. In older kids and adults, SPD can manifest as hypersensitivity or under-sensitivity to touch, hearing, sight, taste, or smell.

For years, experts weren’t exactly sure what caused SPD, and diagnosis is difficult (many children are misdiagnosed and not treated correctly), but in a 2013 study from the University of California San Francisco, researchers used MRI to view the brains of children with SPD and discovered they have differences in brain structure compared to kids without the condition, meaning SPD has a biological basis that might one day be diagnosed in a clinic.

Often, children with SPD are treated by occupational therapists, who work with them on activities thought to organize the sensory system, using tools like brushes, balls, swings, and other equipment specially designed to provide sensory input. But according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, while these therapies may be part of a child’s treatment plan, they haven’t been well studied.

Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, February 2019

Takeaways

  • Children and adults with Sensory Integration Disorder, which is also known as Sensory Processing Disorder, are sensitive to one or several senses.
  • The condition doesn’t have an official diagnostic test. As a result, many children are misdiagnosed and not properly treated.
  • As children struggle to process everyday sounds, sights, feelings and other stimuli, they may react with tantrums and behavior problems. Depression and anxiety are also common.

References

  1. University of California San Francisco. Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids.
  2. Pediatrics.  Sensory Integration Therapies for Children with Developmental and Behavioral Disorders.
  3. The Child Mind Institute. The Debate Over Sensory Processing.

Comments

  1. Hi Kristen,
    I am sorry you had such a negative experience. It can be frustrating and even concerning to have two separate diagnostic impressions and responses to an evaluation. Unfortunately, even therapists are not perfect. Some hold tight to certain mind sets and strategies. It sounds to me like her bedside manner left little to be desired. However, since there is no specific diagnostic test to diagnose SPD it can be too subjective and leaves professionals to lump patients into a group of symptoms, in a way profiling. There are more studies being conducted and we are learning more about how to diagnose and treat individuals with sensory issues. I hope with the new therapist you are working with you have found success and your daughter is making progress.

    Reply
  2. This is interesting….

    My daughter was diagnosed high spectrum SPD. I didn’t like the therapist though, or her manner with my child. After she told me “Lila just needs to suck it up and put on her socks”, I knew it was time to leave.

    Our new OT has a completely opposite diagnosis, and thinks she just has mild issues exacerbated by our reactions to her behaviors. How can 2 therapist have such distinct opinions when doing the same evaluation? Curious of your take.

    Thanks!

    Reply

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