Current estimates are that 1 in 44 children in the United States have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Lesser known, however, is a condition called sensory processing disorder, or SPD. Many people with ASD may also have SPD, but not all people with SPD have autism.
Parents should know the signs of sensory processing disorder so that they can pursue early interventions that may help their children cope with this noisy, scratchy, bright, hot, cold world.
Definition of Sensory Processing Disorder
SPD involves hyper- or hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli. If something in their environment triggers an overreaction, children may throw a tantrum, refuse to stay seated, or run away. Hyposensitive or under-reactive types engage in “sensory-seeking” behavior, such as banging against walls, jumping, touching things constantly, hugging too hard, or climbing into laps when it’s socially inappropriate.
Doctors, researchers, and therapists disagree about whether SPD is a separate diagnosable disorder. It didn’t make it into the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the manual that psychiatrists and psychologists use to identify mental illnesses. Doctors often lump SPD in with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and anxiety.
Occupational therapists (OTs), on the other hand, regard SPD as a separate treatable disorder. They use a variety of tools, including swings, slides, pillows or beanbag chairs, and mini trampolines in a “sensory gym” environment to help children with the disorder better cope with their surroundings and their reactions to them.
Symptoms of SPD
Signs of sensory-seeking or -avoiding behaviors to watch for include:
Oversensitive or Overreactive
- Startled reactions to specific sounds
- Complaints that lights are too bright
- Refusal to wear clothes that have tags or that are “too itchy”
- Aversion to walking on grass or sand or to the sensation of a breeze on their skin
- Resistance to hugs, handshakes, or pats on the back
- Extremely picky or messy eating
- Clumsiness or poor balance
- Aggressiveness toward other kids or lack of boundaries
- Loud talking; no “inside voice”
Under-Sensitive, Under-Reactive, or Sensory-Seeking
- Swinging too high; tantrums when it’s time to leave the park
- Chewing on objects (beyond normal teething or infant curiosity)
- Jumping from dangerous heights
- Not bothered by being dirty or having a runny nose
- Preference for spicy foods
- Sniffing at non-food objects
What To Do If You Suspect SPD
Get a developmental evaluation from your pediatrician or child psychologist, but don’t expect a formal diagnosis. Instead, seek help from an occupational therapist recommended by other special-needs parents in your community. OTs understand SPD and can give children exercises to better integrate their sensory processing so that they can display more socially appropriate behaviors.
Don’t discount the possibility that your child may genuinely be on the autism spectrum or have other symptoms that indicate ADHD or an anxiety disorder. Trust your instincts. If something a clinician says just doesn’t seem right, get a second opinion.
Unlike with autism, it’s thought that children with SPD can “grow out of it.” Occupational therapists can document progress in sensory responses that help children with SPD better regulate themselves. When you know the signs of SPD, you’ll be able to get your child the right kind of help.