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Sensory Processing Disorder: Ambiguous but Real

University of Virginia Health System Blog – December 11, 2013

A child screams violently when her grandmother tries to squeeze and kiss her goodbye.

A little girl smacks her playmates in the head, without concern for consequences.

Another child zones out in the corner of a loud room.

A little boy wails because his feet are wet, and he is inconsolable.

Sensory disorders can cause children to act out or zone out.

0308-Children-with-SPD-often-zone-outThese incidents look like bad behavior. We often quickly conclude that children who do these things are spoiled, bossy or disrespectful.

And that is what makes understanding sensory processing disorder (SPD) so challenging. Behavior resulting from SPD can look like a tantrum or discipline problem. And the remedies for dealing with the behavior tend to be counterintuitive. Which is why it’s a disorder often undiagnosed and untreated. Sensory disorders, like many autism spectrum disorders, remain somewhat obscure to most people.

Sensory Profiles: Sensory Input Preferences

We all have individual sensory profiles, preferences for different types and amounts of stimuli.

Ruth Goldeen, an occupational therapist at the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center (KCRC), explains:

“We all have a unique nervous system with preferences and distastes for sensory input. One person might prefer to spend free time in an arcade with plenty of noise and hustle and bustle; another might want to sit in a quiet space and read a book. Both are ‘normal’ but definitely opposite extremes. And certainly some people may know they don’t like loud noises or crowds and find ways to adjust their environments accordingly.”

The Kinds of SPD

People can have two basic kinds of sensory processing disorder.

Sensory defensiveness: A child who is sensory defensive doesn’t like touch, sound or input they don’t create themselves. It sends them into “fight or flight” mode, an acute stress response triggered by real or perceived threat that causes the release of hormones and increases heart, breath and blood pressure rates.

Example: A 3-year-old spends the day in daycare, which often means a chaotic, noisy atmosphere filled with unpredictable children. By the end of the day, the child, having spent 8 or 9 hours in a state of heightened anxiety, reacts to normal interactions as if to a threat, by running away, hiding or punching.

Sensory seeking: A child seeking sensory input will bang into everything, literally bounce off the walls, even chew things.

Example: “They don’t seem reactive to the environment. The child will be finger painting and suddenly the paint covers their whole body. Or the child will walk right off the edge of the playset. And they don’t react at all. It’s a hyporeaction, an underresponsive reaction.” Goldeen explains that sensory seekers often end up in long-term hobbies that involve a great deal of physical stimulation, like rugby, football and horseback riding.

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