Sensory Processing 101: Sensory Processing Disorder – a traffic jam of the senses

By: Ainsley Schwartz

We use our five senses throughout each day to orient to the world around us. We wake up to the sound of an alarm clock, feel the bristles from our toothbrush, smell and taste our breakfast, and use our eyes to drive or walk to our daily job. We take for granted that our senses will work properly. The senses of children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), send and receive mixed signals that their brains cannot decode. Their ears may hear background sounds much louder than foreground sounds. Their taste buds may intensify or register no flavors. The scratch of a tag on the back of a shirt may be too much to bear. Children with SPD may have difficulty completing daily tasks at home and at school due to the confused signals their brains receive.

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder that occurs when the nervous system doesn’t process sensory input correctly. The sensations a person is supposed to feel and what that person actually feels differ. The brain confuses the input from the senses, causing a sort of collision, which often results in inappropriate actions. Children with SPD who display inappropriate behaviors are responding to their sensitivity to noise, texture, taste, or other sensory input. This can be a great challenge for parents, teachers, and other individuals who work with these children.

Children with SPD may have a hyper reactive nervous system where sensations are intensified, or hypo reactive in which sensations are dulled. They may seek out or avoid specific sounds, textures, tastes, and lighting, depending on how their body brain processes sensory input. Children with SPD seek or avoid sensory input in order to feel more “comfortable.”

Children with SPD may display some of the following behaviors:

  • Aversion/sensitivity to touch
  • Talking too loudly
  • Unresponsive when name is called
  • Difficulty standing or sitting still
  • Distractibility
  • Aversion to certain foods
  • Aversion to crowds or busy places
  • Pressing too hard or too light when writing
  • Unable to sit for long periods of time
  • Falls or bumps into objects
  • Aversion to bright lights
  • Aversion or attraction to touch certain textures

Clearing the “Traffic” of SPD

SPD is not a disease, and it cannot be cured. But the challenging effects can be minimized through sensory integration, which involves strategies and accommodations to the child’s environment. All children with SPD have different sensory challenges, so a series of trial and error with SPD strategies to see what works best for your child is important. You can use all of the following strategies and accommodations at home or at school in order to help children with SPD better accommodate their sensory processes. Many of these can be found online or even made at home:

  • Visual schedule
  • Break tasks into smaller parts
  • Timers for completion of tasks
  • Sensory/movement breaks
  • Hand fidgets
  • Weighted blankets/lap pads
  • Alternative seating (exercise ball, sit disc)
  • Pencil grips, pencil toppers
  • Headphones (noise cancelling or with music)
  • Quiet area to escape
  • Swings, hammocks, or trampolines
  • Resistance bands
  • Pushing or pulling something heavy
  • Sensory “bins” with different textured materials

The above strategies can be combined into a plan for your child, called a “sensory diet.” A carefully constructed personal activity plan can help a child with SPD stay focused and feel more comfortable throughout the day. All children have different sensory challenges, so children who are hyper reactive will benefit more from calming strategies such as a quiet area, weighted blankets or pushing or pulling heavy objects. Children who are more hypo reactive may need strategies that stimulate them, such as bouncing on an exercise ball, swinging, or playing with messy textures. It is important to note that you should consult a certified Occupational Therapist to plan a proper sensory diet for a child with SPD, as some of these strategies could be counterproductive.

Creative Strategies and Accommodations

Children with SPD may attempt to regulate their bodies’ senses by engaging in inappropriate or unusual behaviors. SPD can be a great challenge for both adults and the children who experience it, but a well-designed sensory diet can help children better integrate information from their senses. Many creative strategies and accommodations are out there to help children with SPD. Be sure to seek help from a professional when developing a sensory diet, as each child faces unique challenges.