Loud noises and excessive activity can be overwhelming for anyone. But if typical, everyday sensory experiences overwhelm your child, it could be sensory processing disorder (SPD).
What is sensory processing disorder?
According to the University of Michigan Health System, sensory processing disorder involves
“difficulty processing information from the senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing) and responding appropriately to that information. These children typically have one or more senses that either over- or under react to stimulation. Sensory processing disorder can cause problems with a child’s development and behavior.”
If that definition sounds a little broad or a little vague, that’s because it is. Diagnosing sensory processing disorder can be quite tricky because it manifests in different ways for different people.
One child may be extremely sensitive to noise, especially sudden ones. Another child may have challenges with different food textures. Still another child may actually crave additional sensory input, above what they’re receiving in their current environment.
Is sensory processing disorder an actual disorder?
There are many challenges when it comes to diagnosing sensory processing disorder. One of the most significant is that many experts still disagree on how to classify SPD.
At this point, the DSM-5 doesn’t recognize sensory processing disorder as an independent condition. Instead, it references sensitivity to sensory input in greater detail under other recognized diagnoses, including ADHD and autism.
Similarly, the AAP put out a bulletin back in 2012 recommending pediatricians not independently diagnose SPD. That bulletin automatically expired in 2017, but the AAP hasn’t issued meaningful new guidance since.
On the other hand, some experts believe sensory processing disorder to be a real, independent disorder. They argue that by other medical organizations dragging their heels in recognizing SPD, they’re doing harm to patients who suffer from the disorder.
In short, the medical community remains undecided.
If you’re a parent whose child suffers from sensory issues, you may not care whether it’s a separate disorder or not. You just want to help your child.
The concern is that, if SPD isn’t an independent condition — if it’s part of another diagnosis — children could be missing out on other beneficial treatments for the larger (undiagnosed) problem.
(If you’re interested in reading more about the dilemma of diagnosing SPD, the Child Mind Institute has a great synopsis here.)
How is SPD treated?
Whether sensory processing disorder is an independent diagnosis or a compilation of symptoms resulting from another disorder, the fact remains: children are still struggling with sensory challenges. Parents and professionals are still working hard to help them.
So what treatment options exist?
Much of the treatment surrounding SPD centers on “sensory integration.” Sensory integration is the act of helping a child with SPD recognize and respond appropriately to sensory input. Most sensory integration exercises are conducted by occupational therapists.
Some of this sensory integration may take place in “sensory gyms.” These gyms have a combination of everyday items and more unusual sensory-specific items like weighted blankets, medicine balls, balance seats, etc.
The goal is to use a controlled environment to teach the child effective coping mechanisms. An OT will also likely teach the parents exercises, activities, and strategies to use at home with the child.
Are SPD treatments effective?
Working with an occupational therapist on sensory integration can be expensive for families. Since SPD isn’t a recognized medical disorder, many insurances won’t cover treatment.
Still, many parents and therapists report success with treatment. Rigorous research has been limited. Still, some studies suggest that therapy, especially when started at an early age, can help improve symptoms and facilitate better coping.
SPD symptoms may also improve with age. However, it’s not uncommon for some degree of symptoms to remain despite treatment, especially in the face of a stressful environment or situation.
If you think your child may have symptoms of sensory processing disorder, reach out to their pediatrician. They may be able to help or refer you to any number of child specialists for assistance.