Sensory Processing Disorder in Children - The Types and Treatments

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Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder, or SPD, is a unique set of symptoms that is both a diagnosable condition on its own, but it’s also a symptom of autistic spectrum disorders. It’s important for parents to be aware of the symptoms of sensory processing disorder in children because it can be the sign of a larger problem. While each child is unique, some of the “quirks” that kids have are actually things to pay attention to.

Sensory processing disorder can be described as a “traffic jam” of all the neurological signals from the various senses. When the signals are not routed to the correct places in the correct order, the result is a child that can be distant, clumsy, or overly emotional at routine activities and sensations.

Tactile Dysfunction

The sense of touch, or the tactile sense, sends neurological signals from the receptors in the skin to the brain. In children who have tactile dysfunction, they can be overly sensitive (hypersensitive), under sensitive (hyposensitive), or have poor discrimination of signals. Some of the signs of tactile dysfunction in children include;

  • Becoming agitated by touch or my crave touch and touch everything. If they have poor discrimination, they may have difficulty discerning which part of the body received the touch unless they saw it happen.
  • They can be oversensitive to minor scrapes and bruises, or they may not notice them at all.
  • They may be oversensitive to being dirty, especially their hands. If they are hyposensitive, they may not notice a dirty face or runny nose.
  • If the child is oversensitive, they may resist basic, everyday grooming activities such as brushing hair or teeth. If they are under sensitive, they may even spend extended amounts of time grooming themselves and may even run their hairbrush over their arms or legs.

Vestibular Dysfunction

The sense of movement, or the vestibular sense, processes inputs that tell the child where they are in the space around them. This comes from the inner ear which handles balance and movement. In the child who has vestibular dysfunction they can be over responsive (hypersensitive), under responsive (hyposensitive) or have poor coordination. Some of the signs of vestibular dysfunction include;

  • In the hypersensitive child, they may have difficulty with tasks such as riding in elevators or in vehicles. They may even get motion sickness. If they are hyposensitive, they may seem to be hyperactive. They may not want to sit still, preferring constant motion instead.
  • The hyposensitive child will take every opportunity to spin (desk chairs are always a popular choice) or bounce up and down. These are the kids that will go mattress surfing down the stairs at home.
  • The child with poor vestibular coordination will seem “floppy”. They are clumsy and will often grasp onto objects tightly to try and stabilize themselves. They have difficulty performing tasks such as fastening clothes or turning door knobs.

Proprioceptive Dysfunction

The proprioceptive sense is another sense that deals with motion, but instead of getting input from the inner ear, it gets input from muscles and joints. The body uses this information to determine its position in space. The child with proprioceptive dysfunction can exhibit sensory seeking behaviors such as liking to be “squished” or they may like to push heavy objects. Some have difficulty with movement.

You can find a more complete checklist of the symptoms of sensory processing disorder in children here. You can fill out the checklist if you have concerns about your child’s sensory processing abilities and take them to your doctor, who can then perform a more complete examination to give you a definite diagnosis.

Simple At-Home Treatment

The treatment for sensory processing disorder in children is occupational therapy or OT for short. Once diagnosed, your doctor can refer you to an occupational therapist who can teach you some simple activities that you can do at home with your child. For instance you can get a small trampoline for the child who seeks proprioceptive input. The child who has poor tactile perception may enjoy a hard teething ring (the kind with hard, textured plastic beads, not the fluid filled kind) that they can lick and suck on at will.

Information and Resources

One of the best resources for parents dealing with sensory processing disorder in children is “The Out of Sync Child” by Carol Kranowitz. It explains SPD in depth. There is also a companion book called “The Out of Sync Child has Fun” which gives parents hundreds of activities that they can do with their child for little or no cost. The aims are to give the child the treatment they need, as well as allowing them to just be a kid and have fun.