What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing disorder is a condition commonly associated with autism, but children without autism can experience it, too. Children with sensory processing disorder may be hyper sensitive (overly sensitive to stimuli) or hypo sensitive (under responsive to stimuli) or they can have a combination of both hyper and hypo sensitivity. When this occurs, it can dramatically change the way a child relates to his or her environment. Children with sensory processing disorder are super sensitive and often display intense reactions to sight, sound, smell and touch.

Sensory Processing Manifestations

Sensory processing disorder manifests in a number of ways. For example, a child may insist on having the tags cut out of all of his or her shirts due to extreme sensitivity. A child who does not like touch may have meltdowns while getting dressed before school. The same child might be distracted all day because he or she never habituates to the feeling of clothing on the body. Another child who is hypo sensitive to touch may be in constant motion seeking touch, or be overly aggressive, and in some cases appear to have a high tolerance for pain.

Not Just Behavioral

Typically, parents and teachers focus on the behaviors associated with the disorder and may not recognize that these behaviors are quite simply reactions to sensory stimuli processed through a disorganized central nervous system. When we fail to recognize the sensory basis for these types of behaviors, we immediately and incorrectly label the child as behavioral.

A Wide Range of Problems

When a child is unable to process everyday sensory stimuli, a range of problems may surface. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, social isolation and school failure are all closely linked to sensory processing disorder.

Neurological Disorganization

Children with this type of disorder are generally misunderstood and misdiagnosed. In many cases, children with sensory processing disorder are unfairly disciplined because teachers interpret their actions as “bad” behavior and not what it actually is – a neurophysiological problem. The term “neurological disorganization” is a good way to describe this condition. Since auditory processing is a neurological function, children with sensory processing difficulties may also have involvement in the area of auditory processing.

The Vestibular System

Many children with diagnosed sensory processing disorder have vestibular issues. The vestibular system is responsible for connecting us to the environment with balance and spatial awareness. The vestibular system is part of the inner ear and processes stimuli similar to the way the cochlear system does. Both are responsible for processing movement.

The vestibular system processes movement from inside the body (physical movement), and the auditory system processes movement from outside the body (molecular movement or sound waves). When one of these areas exhibits developmental delays, spillover into the other area of development is quite common.

Simultaneous Stimulation

When we treat one of these areas with sensory integration therapies, we often have spill over in benefiting the other area, too. This is why many therapists that work with children with sensory processing disorder will treat the auditory system with different types of listening programs simultaneously with sensory motor activities. The auditory piece is quite often a very important part of the intervention with children with sensory processing disorder or sensory integration deficiencies.

A “Daily Listening Diet”

When auditory processing deficits become a piece of the puzzle, a “daily listening diet” can prove quite helpful. Learn why a daily listening diet is a critical element in remediating an auditory processing problem.