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What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

SPDTo understand Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), it is important to first understand what sensory processing is.  Sensory processing, formerly described as sensory integration, is the ability of our nervous system to take in information from our own bodies as well as the environment, process that information, and then make an appropriate response. Think of sensory processing like your brain’s super highway, with hundreds of pieces of information whizzing by each second in an organized, yet fast paced way.  Your brain then takes in all those hundreds of pieces of information and helps you make an appropriate motor response. For example, if you are getting ready to push a door open, your body instantaneously responds to the weight of the door and your body knows when to push hard on a heavy door, or when to push gently on a light door.

Now, imagine that super highway has construction and those hundreds of pieces of information are getting backed up.  Or, imagine that those cars’ GPS systems are malfunctioning and each car is taking the wrong exit. This is similar to what happens when a child is experiencing Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Basically, SPD is when a person has an immature or delayed response to sensory input. The information they are receiving from their bodies as well as from the environment is not getting to the brain in an organized, efficient way. As a result, the response the person gives does not tend to match the information received.

For example, if a child touches a sticky wet substance (finger paint), they may have difficulty perceiving that input as a safe, wet substance and instead misinterpret that touch (tactile) input as unsafe and threatening. As a result, they pull their hand away and shows signs of aversion and anxiety. This example is often defined as tactile defensiveness. The finger paint example is one of hundreds for how children with SPD can have difficulty with simple, everyday activities.

Children with processing delays could show a variety of symptoms.  Here are some examples:

Sensory Sensitivities

  • Sensitivities / over responding to lights,
  • environmental stimulation (going to the library, etc.)
  • difficulty tolerating tactile activities such as grooming
    • nails cut
    • hair cuts
    • having messy hands
    • difficulty tolerating hugs from caregivers

Sensory Seeking

  • Needing increased input throughout the day that is excessive compared to other children the same age.
  • Bumping/pushing/running/crashing into objects.
  • Spinning objects to get increased visual input, watching moving objects intently
  • Spinning in circles
  • Loving big movement activities (excessive)

Poor modulation

  • Difficult with self calming
    • taking over an hour to fall asleep
    • difficulty falling asleep,
    • very low tolerance for frustration
  • Sometimes manifests as big tantrums

Motor Planning abilities

  • Clumsy
  • low muscle tone
  • poor coordination (gross and fine motor delays possible)

It is important to remember that we look for CLUSTERS OF BEHAVIORS. Just because a two year old doesn’t like nap and doesn’t like to have his nails cuts does not mean he has sensory delays.