Is My Child's Reaction to Sensory-Input Normal?

Mar 24, 2021
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) affects 1 in 20 children.

Coined a "neurological traffic jam"by neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition in which external and internal sensory is poorly detected, modulated, or interpreted. This results in emotional, behavioral, social, attentional, or motoric challenges.


It is not uncommon for children, and adults, to have a sensitivity toward certain sounds, smells or textures. And a change in environment, exhaustion or stress can further amplify an individual's sensitivities. 

So how do we know if a child is experiencing sensitivity or an actual sensory processing disorder?


Sensitivity or a Sensory Disorder?

While mild sensitivities are normal, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) will impact day-to-day functions; thus, a child with SPD will consistently exhibit overwhelm from internal and/or external stimuli.

SPD is a neurological condition in which sensory input, either from the environment or from one's body, is poorly detected, modulated or interpreted. 

Children with SPD misinterpret sensory input resulting in emotional, behavioral, social, attentional, or motor challenges. 

Considered a neurological traffic jam, SPD is similar to that of sitting at a crowded intersection at rush hour. The brain struggles to properly detect and interpret the appropriate signals, thus either over-responding, under-responding or seeking more stimulation to try and understand the correct signals.

Sensory issues present in a variety of ways, including:

  • shoes, coat or clothes too tight

  • frequently crashing into walls or people

  • easily irritated by textures, sounds or smells

  • unusually low or high pain threshold

  • oversized reaction to a change in environment

  • excessive clumsiness or difficulty with fine motor skills

One of the many challenges of SPD is that it feels like a moving target, but a sign of a sensitivity vs a disorder is the consistency and impact of his or her sensitivities on normal, every day functions. 

Although SPD is currently not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) as a stand-alone disorder, there is no argument that sensory processing issues affect 80% of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and up to 60% of children with ADHD.

​Regardless of the ongoing debate, many experts support the theory that SPD is a standalone disorder and currently impacts 1 in 20 children.


Patterns of SPD

Research indicates there are 3 primary patterns of SPD, further broken down into 6 subtypes.

Most individuals with SPD display more than one subtype, i.e, a child sensitive to loud noises can simultaneously crave other stimuli.

  • Sensory Modulation Disorder: Over or Under Responsive, or Craving Sensory

  • Sensory-Based Motor Disorder: Difficulty with Stability and/or Movement

  • Sensory Discrimination Disorder: Difficulty Determining or Detecting Stimuli

Research has illustrated that children with SPD have abnormal white matter in the rear of the brain.

Responsible for carrying information via electrical impulses from one part of the brain to another, the abnormal white matter does not effectively carry these electrical impulses.

Thus, the brain either misinterprets these messages or simply get overwhelmed by too many messages.


What to do if you suspect SPD?

As a parent, you can begin by documenting the internal and external stimuli that appears to impact your child's day-to-day functions. Seek input from your child's caretaker or pre-school as they may sees things within their environment as well. 

An occupational therapist, experienced in sensory processing disorders, can evaluate and determine if your child is struggling with minor sensitivities or an actual disorder. As previously noted, ADHD and SPD often cohabitate; thus, it is important to seek a full evaluation to rule out co-morbidities. 

The great news is that the symptoms of SPD can be addressed with professional help. Occupational Therapy (OT) is a leading treatment of SPD; however, there are a vast number of alternative treatments such as diet, music therapy, and brain training and cognitive games that have proven highly effective in decreasing SPD symptoms.

Regardless of where you are on your journey, you are not alone. And you are not crazy: the struggle is real! And so is the ability to provide your child with the help and support they need to learn to manage their challenges and embrace their gifts!


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