ABOUT sensory processing disorder

What Is sensory processing disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD is a neurological disorder in which the sensory information that the individual perceives results in abnormal responses. For example, a person may over-respond to touch by feeling pain when lightly touched or may have a very high tolerance for pain and extreme temperatures.


Sensory processing refers to the way in which our nervous system receives messages from our senses and converts these messages into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. For example, whether you are riding a bicycle, drinking a cup of hot chocolate or sitting on a chair, the successful completion of these activities depends on the accurate processing of sensation. People with SPD detect sensory information. However, the sensory information gets mixed up when the brain processes the information. As a result, people with SPD perceive and/or respond to sensory information differently than most other people. Since a person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, this creates significant challenges in performing countless everyday tasks.


What are the Affects of Having SPD?


SPD affects people differently. It may affect only one sense (such as touch, hearing or taste) or it may affect multiple senses.  People with SPD can either be hypersensitive (over-responsive) or hyposensitive (under-responsive) to sensory stimuli. The symptoms of SPD exist on a spectrum. Some kids with SPD may over-respond to touch and find clothing, physical contact and other tactile sensory input to be unbearable. These kids may scream when touched or refuse to wear certain fabrics. On the other side of the spectrum, kids might under-respond to touch and show little or no reaction to stimulation. These kids may fail to respond to extreme heat or cold or even pain.


SPD can also affect motor skills and posture. Kids who have impaired sensory processing of messages from their muscles and joints, struggle with motor skills and posture. We may appear floppy and have a tendency to prop ourselves up on walls when standing, lean our heads on our hand when writing and avoid long walks.  We may also move very awkwardly, be clumsy and prone to frequently tripping and falling.


What Are The Symptoms of Being Hypersensitive to Stimuli?


Kids that are hypersensitive or overly sensitive to sensory stimulation may:


  • Be unable to tolerate bright lights and loud noises (for example, fluorescent lights, ambulance sirens and loud music).


  • Refuse to wear clothing because it feels scratchy or irritating (even after cutting out all the tags and labels).


  • Refuse to wear socks and/or shoes because they feel “too tight.”


  • Be distracted by background noises that others don’t seem to hear.


  • Be fearful of surprise touch and avoid hugs and cuddling even from familiar adults.


  • Often have trouble knowing where their body is in relation to other objects or people.


  • Bump into people and things and appear clumsy.


  • Have trouble sensing the amount of force they are applying (for example, they may rip the paper when erasing or slam down a glass of water when placing it on the table).


  • Run off or bolt, when they’re overwhelmed to get away from whatever is distressing them (for example, at kid’s birthday parties).


  • Have extreme meltdowns when overwhelmed.


What Are The Symptoms of Being Hyposensitive to Stimuli?


Kids that are undersensitive tend to seek out more sensory stimulation. They may:


  • Have a constant need to touch people or textures, even when it’s not socially acceptable.


  • Not understand personal space even when kids the same age are old enough to understand it.


  • Have an extremely high tolerance for pain.


  • Not understand their own strength.


  • Be very fidgety and unable to sit still.


  • Love jumping, bumping and crashing activities (especially roller coasters and trampolines).


  • Enjoy deep pressure like tight bear hugs and having their hand held very tightly.


  • Crave fast, spinning and/or intense movement.


  • Love being tossed in the air and jumping on furniture and trampolines.


  • Like to wear really tight clothes that are too small.


Tips on Coping with SPD


Sensory overload can be very frightening and disorienting. In my case, it causes significant anxiety, especially when I am in public and fear that someone will accidentally bump into me or brush past me. The pain can be so excruciating that my heart races just thinking about it.


Although you cannot cure SID, there are a few steps you can take that may help in minimizing the symptoms and the stress caused by SPD.


If You Are Uncertain as to Whether Your Perception of Something is Normal Ask a Relative or Trusted Friend –Since a person with SIP’s perception of stimuli is very different from that of a person that does not have SPD, it can be difficult for us to determine whether the sensation we are feeling is normal. For the longest time, I thought everyone experienced the same sensory issues that I did. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized I was different, that not everyone has to wear long sleeve sweatshirts on a blistering hot day because the sensation of the wind against their skin causes them agony. Once you can identify your perception as not being normal, you wll be in a better position to address it.


Identify Your Own Stimuli – Since each individual experiences SPD differently, you are the only person that can identify what types of stimuli cause you distress and discomfort. Make a list of the offending stimuli. Your list may include certain fabrics, smells and noises. If possible, carry the list with you so that you can add to it. Every time you realize that there's something missing from the list, add it to the list. Consider sharing your list with your parents, siblings or trusted friends so they know how to help you.


As you write down your sensitivities, try to figure out ways to avoid them. Be creative when trying to find a solution. If your school jumper causes you discomfort, try finding a similar replacement that is made of a different fabric. If bright lights bother you, consider wearing tinted glasses.


Be Open About Your SPD – Your parents, siblings and close relatives will be familiar with your SPD and will have adapted their behavior towards you to accommodate your SPD. However, other people that you are in regular contact with, such as friends, classmates and teachers, may not be aware of your condition and may inadvertently cause you pain or discomfort.


Don’t assume that just because something causes you pain or just because you can’t feel pain, that other people respond this way too. If you are upfront and honest with people about your condition, they are much more likely to be supportive. If you are hypersensitive, they can try to avoid or curtail actions that could cause you pain and discomfort.  If you are hyposensitive, they are much more likely to be understanding if you are particularly rough and clumsy.


Consider Asking Your School for Accommodations – School can sometimes be overwhelming, especially for someone with SPD. Consider approaching your school’s SENCO and discussing the sensory issues that cause you the most stress and anxiety. For example, if you are very sensitive to loud noises, ask if you can be excused from attending school assemblies in the auditorium. My SENCO arranged for me to get an express lunch pass and got permission for me to take my lunch out of the school cafeteria so that I can eat somewhere quieter and less crowded.


Give Yourself Plenty of Downtime – Being a kid with SPD can be very stressful, it is important to do things that relax you and allow you to recharge your batteries. Read. Listen to music. Play chess. I always set aside some quiet time each day to decompress. This usually involves playing with my dog or taking him for a walk. Downtime is especially important when you have sensory issues because it allows you to stay balanced and helps you to avoid feeling overloaded (which can lead to anxiety and panic attacks). I find that my sensory processing issues significantly increase when I am stressed and so to keep my SPD from spiralling out of control, I make a concerted effort to do things that relax me.