Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a complex disorder of the brain that affects both children and adults. People with Sensory Processing Disorder are not able to effectively process sensory information such as touch, sound and movement that we all experience every day. This causes them to misinterpret these sensations and respond differently to how most of us do. Some people with SPD may become easily overwhelmed by sensory information. Some may seek out sensory experiences more than other people, or some may not even notice different sensations that come into contact with.
What is sensory information and why is processing it correctly so important? Sensory information is the information we take in from the environment, from other people and from our own bodies through our seven senses. The commonly known five senses are touch, smell, taste, sight and sound. The final two lesser-known senses are proprioception, which refers to the sensation of our body joints and muscles. Another one is vestibular, which refers to the sensation of where our body is in space relative to gravity. Your brain’s ability to correctly process this information is so important because information received through hearing, vision, taste, smell, touch, pressure, and movement is used by our brains and bodies to develop our movement skills, cognitive skills and our ability to learn new things.
What is the importance of sensory processing?
So what do we mean by sensory processing? Sensory processing refers to our ability to perceive sensory information, interpret and process this information in our brains. Also, it gives an appropriate response to the sensation we have experienced. For most of us, this process is as automatic as taking a breath, however, this is not the case for people with SPD. The sensory information they perceive gets confused in their brains. Whilst experiencing different sensations helps most of us to develop our skills, it causes the brains and bodies of people with SPD to become disorganised and unable to respond like most of us. People with SPD commonly have many emotional, social, and educational problems. There is also the inability to socialise effectively and make friends and is commonly labelled as clumsy, uncooperative, oversensitive, disruptive, disengaged or ‘out of control’.
Different Types of SPD
Are there different types of SPD? Being a very complex neurological disorder there are several subtypes of SPD which all look present differently. Many people with SPD have a combination of more than one subtype. The 6 Main Subtypes are:
Sensory Over-Responsivity: Individuals with sensory over-responsivity are more sensitive to sensory stimulation than most people. They often feel overwhelmed by sensory input and will often try to avoid or limit their exposure to sensations by covering their ears when there are loud noises or avoiding certain textures.
Sensory Under-Responsivity: Individuals with sensory under-responsivity are often quiet withdrawn and difficult to engage. They may fail to register certain sensations or demonstrate no response to sensations others would commonly respond to or engage with. Being under-responsive to sensations such as tactile and deep pressure input can lead to poor body awareness which often presents as clumsiness. They may also fail to recognise when objects are too hot or too sharp which can be harmful.
Sensory seeking individuals constantly crave sensory input. They love being on the move, jumping, crashing and running everywhere they go. They also love touching everything and struggle with the concept of personal space and keeping their hands to themselves.
Individuals with postural disorder have difficulty stabilising their bodies during movements or whilst at rest. They struggle to maintain a good standing posture or sitting position which affects their ability to effectively engage in required tasks.
Individuals with Dyspraxia have difficulty planning and carrying out motor tasks. They are usually clumsy and lack coordination. You will see that they demonstrate poor skill level in ball activities and other sports as well. They often struggle with fine motor activities as well.
Sensory Discrimination Disorder
Individuals with Sensory Discrimination Disorder have difficulty distinguishing between specific characteristics and details of different sensory information. They may mix up similar letters or sounds, take longer to determine where a sound is coming from and find it difficult to execute fine and gross motor skills accurately. They tend to have difficulty recognising how much force is required for particular tasks. For example, it helps know how tightly they need to grasp a pencil or how hard they need to press down when writing or the amount of force required to throw a ball a set distance.
Dealing with Sensory Differences
So, what strategies can we use to help children deal with their sensory differences?
- Introducing and sticking to a simple and consistent routine.
- Using visual cues to set task expectations, to help reinforce routines and to introduce new or changes in tasks.
- Giving children extra time and support (if available) at school and when completing tasks at home.
- Using a sensory diet to maintain an appropriate level of stimulation, therefore providing a good level of sensory feedback to the brain and body.
- Reducing environmental factors in the classroom and at home that contribute to overstimulation.
- Reading social stories to help a child understand how to follow a routine and how to respond appropriately in everyday situations.
- Using physical activity to develop strength and coordination. Enable children to participate in a variety of activities which provide good opportunities for social interaction.
Occupational Therapy Helping Children focusses on the treatment of children with sensory processing disorder. If you have any concerns with your child’s sensory processing please contact us to help.