by Becky L. Spivey, M.Ed.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), or the former but still acceptable term “Sensory
Integration” (SI), is a term referring to the way the nervous system receives messages from the
senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Whether you are eating
pancakes, riding a skateboard, or reading a book, your successful completion of any activity
requires processing many different sensations.
A Sensory Processing Disorder exists when sensory signals cannot organize themselves into
appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist and neuroscientist, A. Jean Ayres, PhD,
compares SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” which prevents parts of the brain from receiving
the information it needs to interpret sensory information correctly. A person with SPD finds it
difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses which, in turn, can
create severe challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Clumsiness, behavioral problems,
anxiety, depression, and school failure are a few ways SPD can affect someone that does not
receive effective treatment.
Sensory Processing Disorder can affect people in only one sense–just touch, sight, or
movement–or in multiple senses. One person with SPD may over-respond to the touch sensation
and find clothing, physical contact, light, sound, food, or other sensory input as unbearable.
Another might under-respond in reaction to stimulation – even pain or extreme hot and cold.
Other children might exhibit appetites that are in perpetual overdrive for certain sensations.
Children receiving impaired messages of sensory processing
from their muscles and joints might experience poor posture
and motor skills and, as a result, may have low self-esteem,
experience social/emotional issues, and struggle academically.
This disability is not an obvious one. People unaware of
this disorder, including parents and educators, may label SPD
children as clumsy, uncooperative, belligerent, disruptive, or
“out of control” Without an appropriate diagnosis and therapy,
anxiety, depression, aggression, or other behavior problems
However, most children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are as intelligent as their
peers and are sometimes intellectually gifted; the wiring of their brain is just different. Those
with SPD must learn alternate ways (through therapy) to help them adapt to how they process
information, and they must acquire leisure activities that suit their own sensory processing needs.
Children with SPD often receive a misdiagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
and begin a regiment of medication that is not addressing their needs. Examine the symptoms of
ADHD and SPD side by side, and you will see some striking parallels, as well as several disparities.
The two conditions do not always go hand in hand, but they can and often do. Err on the side of
caution and consult physicians and therapists who are knowledgeable about both.
Once children with SPD have an accurate diagnosis, they benefit from a treatment
program of occupational therapy (OT) with a sensory integration (SI) approach. Well-trained
clinicians will effectively combine an Integrated Listening System or other complementary
therapies with Occupational Therapy and Sensory Integration techniques. This approach typically
takes place in a sensory-rich environment sometimes called an “OT gym.” During OT sessions, the
therapist guides the child through fun activities that are very subtle, yet challenging.
The goal of occupational therapy is to foster appropriate responses to sensation in an
active, meaningful, and fun way so the child is able to behave in a more functional manner. Over
time, the appropriate responses generalize to the environment beyond the clinic to include the
home, school, and the larger community. Effective occupational therapy enables children with
SPD to take part in the normal activities of childhood, such as playing with friends, enjoying
school, eating, and dressing.
Ideally, occupational therapy for SPD is family-centered.
Parents work with the therapist to learn more about their child’s
sensory challenges and thereby learn methods for engaging with
them in therapeutic activities (sometimes called a “sensory diet”)
at home and elsewhere. The child’s therapist can provide ideas
to teachers and others outside the family who interact regularly
with the child. Parents have the opportunity to communicate
their own priorities for treatment which helps others who live and
work with sensational children to understand that this disorder is
real, even though sometimes it is “hidden.” With this assurance,
they become better advocates for their child at school and within
Preliminary research suggests that SPD is something we
inherit. If so, the causes of SPD are in our genetic material. Prenatal and birth complications have
also been implicated, and environmental factors may be involved. As with any developmental
and/or behavioral disorder, the causes of SPD are likely to be the result of factors that are both
genetic and environmental. Only with more research will it be possible to identify the role