The Misunderstood Child: Sensory Processing 101

A typical morning in my home begins with the words, “My clothes hurt me.” or  “They are too loose.” or “I need new clothes.” As a result, I began the search for the “right” clothes for my 4-year-old daughter. After many tears and lots of tight hugs, she begins her day in the same dress that she has worn for many, often consecutive, days. The process of getting dressed, seemingly simple for most, is the biggest challenge my child faces every day.

This situation, one example of the daily struggles of a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), is a symptom of the disorder which leaves children “feeling cranky because their clothes are itchy…[or] because they feel they have to move all the time, which makes it hard to sit and listen to a story when they need to touch everything they see or they need to jump, run or push, so they are often in trouble with adults,” explains Gail Masse, occupational therapist (OTR/L) for Sylvania Schools. “Some children with SPD feel like their bodies are not able to do the things that other kids their age are able to do, so they appear clumsy or uncoordinated.”

Defining SPD

The term sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. “SPD is an impaired sensory system, which results in a variety of difficulties for the child,” Masse clarifies. “Some studies show that as many as 1 out of 20 children suffer from SPD, and there is ongoing research to identify genetic, environmental, [and] birth risk factors that may contribute to SPD.”

Eric Swindel, preschool intervention specialist with Sylvania Schools, adds that SPD “can impact a child’s performance in the areas of emotional stability, academic performance, and peer [interaction]. When a child does not feel sensory input is regulated, it is difficult for [him/her] to complete any task.”

The diagnosis

SPD can be difficult to diagnose because it affects each person differently. Masse explains that children with SPD may fall into one category or a combination:

hypersensitive: if they over-respond to sensation to a greater degree than their peers; *hyposensitive, if they under- respond to sensation;

sensory craving: if they crave sensation to a greater degree.

“Another pattern is…sensory-based motor disorder, which describes children who have significant difficulty with postural control and/or motor planning,” she adds.

Hypersensitive SPD:

  • Is distracted by typical noises (flushing toilets, clanking silverware)
  • Fears unexpected touch
  • Avoids swings and playground equipment
  • Has poor balance

Hyposensitive SPD:

  • Has a constant need to touch people or textures
  • Has a high tolerance to pain
  • Doesn’t understand own strength (may accidentally harm children or pets when playing)
  • Is fidgety and unable to sit still, enjoys movement-based play (spinning, jumping, swinging etc.)
  • Seems to be a “thrill seeker”
Gail Masse, OTR/L, occupational therapist for Sylvania Schools.
Gail Masse, OTR/L, occupational therapist for Sylvania Schools.

Thrive and survive

SPD does create challenges for families, but there is treatment available for kids who struggle with it. “Specific sensory strategies for over responsive, under responsive and/or sensory craving patterns are implemented in the school environment. Strengthening and movement activities are recommended for sensory-based motor disorders,” Masse says. “With treatment and maturation, SPD can improve; however, left undiagnosed and untreated, older children and adults can also suffer from the effects of SPD.” 

An occupational therapist tries to educate parents about SPD, providing families with tools to help the child progress at home. With occupational therapy, kids with SPD can find techniques that help them balance sensory input. Activities may include swinging, wearing a weighted vest, pushing or pulling heavy objects across the room, or jumping on a trampoline. Many of these activities are fun for the child and can be integrated into playtime at home.

Patience, persistence, and love are needed to parent children with SPD, but feeling accepted and supported, they can work through their struggles, and thrive in school and at home.

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