Sensory processing disorder (SPD) describes a condition where the brain and nervous system have trouble organising, processing and responding to external stimuli.
The result is that abnormal responses to normal sensory input is observed due to poor detection or interpretation thereof.
For children with SPD, daily activities or functions can be extremely overwhelming or even painful to experience.
What Does SPD Affect?
SPD affects smell, sight, hearing, taste, touch as well as the two internal senses of body awareness and movement.
SPD can affect only one sense or all of them and those who have SPD can be either over or under stimulated.
Over stimulated children avoid sensory stimulation while under stimulated children seek stimulation and extreme and relevant measures are usually taken in both cases.
Depending on where your child is on the spectrum, their individual responses to their stimuli will differ.
Flickering lights, loud noises, concentrated odours, textures of certain food and certain types of clothing can all be overwhelming for a child with SPD. These are all stimuli related to the 5 common senses.
However, as mentioned before, there are two internal senses that can also be affected by SPD.
These sensory receptors are found in the joints and ligaments and help control movement and posture. These senses tell the brain where the body is in relation to its environment and how to navigate through the spaces around objects.
Children who are under-stimulated will enjoy bumping, crashing, jumping and anything that provides deep physical pressure like squeezing your hand or tight hugs.
Over-stimulated children may be clumsy or bump into objects around them. They have difficulty with understanding how much force they are using so they might slam objects down or tear a page when trying to erase.
These receptors are found in the inner ear and they tell the brain where the body is in space. This plays a major role in balance and coordination.
Under-stimulated children seek intense movement like speed, spinning around or being thrown up in the air.
Over-stimulated children are afraid of activities that need balance like riding a bike, climbing jungle gyms or balancing on one foot. These children may also appear to be unusually clumsy.
Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder
The symptoms of SPD will differ depending on whether your child is over or under sensitive.
Symptoms of Over Sensitivity
These children will avoid sensory stimulation.
- Avoids hugs fearful of unexpected touch even from familiar adults
- Exaggerated response to sudden loud, high-pitched or sharp sounds such as the start of a motorbike, food blenders or the banging doors
- Fearful of crowds
- Hyper aware of and distracted by background noises that you may be unaware of
- Extremely scared of playground equipment, swings and contact games played at school or daycare
- Has unusually poor balance
- Generally emotional, anxious and reactive
- Does not like change or impulsive activities but prefers structure and routine
- Can display aggressive or demanding behaviour
- Cannot tolerate certain clothing or goods
Symptoms of Under Sensitivity
These children will go out of their way to look for stimulation.
- Has no real concept of personal space
- Uncoordinated movement and clumsiness
- Unusually high tolerance for pain
- Has no concept of own strength and tends to unintentionally harm peers or pets during play
- Incontrollable urges to touch certain textures even when it’s inappropriate
- Impulsive, hyperactive, excitable and loud
- Enjoys hard physical contact like crashing or tackling
- Has no concept of potential safety risks such as burning on a stove plate or injury from extreme physical activity
Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD
Because of the similarities in symptoms, children with SPD can easily be diagnosed as ADHD.
These children may be overwhelmed by situations that others find completely normal, or behave in ways that seem inappropriate to others and this can lead to misinterpreted behaviour.
Children with SPD are often labelled as spoiled, stubborn or naughty and this is mostly because they are unable to express the way they feel when over-stimulated.
Dramatic mood swings, tantrums and running away from an uncomfortable situation or environment are all typical responses to sensory issues in children.
Therefore, the sensory processing disorder diagnosis may be challenging for anyone who is not specialised in the field.
However, it’s important to rule out SPD as a possibility before beginning treatment for ADHD or any other condition which may show similar symptoms.
How To Help a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder
The process of helping a child with SPD is known as sensory integration and is aimed at helping a child understand why they are uncomfortable with certain stimuli and how to better manage their responses.
There are in-room treatment programmes that require the child and the parent to take part in certain activities in a controlled environment.
However, there are certain things you can do at home to relieve the stress felt by you and your little one when they respond to unwanted stimulation.
- Create a safe space – This is not a naughty corner but a safe space that your child can go to when things are too much to handle. Your child can decide independently when they need to visit their safe space and you may suggest it. However, avoid forcefully sending your little one there as they may perceive this as punishment. They can use their safe space to relax and ground themselves before beginning the next activity.
- Avoid big crowds – For over sensitive children, loud concerts, shopping malls and kiddie’s birthday parties can be too stimulating and overwhelming. This can cause a lot of discomfort and anxiety.
- Quiet time – This is crucial for any child due to their ability to exhaust themselves quicker than adults do. Quiet time helps your child recharge and regain the energy necessary for the next phase of the day.
- Be aware – If your child has issues with textures, make sure you know what kind of material they are comfortable with before purchasing clothes for them. In fact, make sure that you take your child with to buy their clothes so they can tell you what they are able to tolerate. Never force your child to wear something that makes them uncomfortable.
- Don’t be impulsive – Children who are oversensitive do not enjoy impulsive behaviour or surprises. Make sure you prepare your child for what is to come. This way, they are able to mentally prepare themselves and devise a strategy for coping with whatever the situation is going to be. Be specific and give them all the necessary details they need to adequately prepare themselves.
- Be aware of movement sensitivity – Movement sensitive children will easily become car sick so help your child to find a way to self-regulate. Perhaps eating a fruit during the trip will help. Also, movement sensitivity will affect which sports or activities your child will be comfortable taking part in.
Calming Sensory Input
For over-sensitive children, using calming methods of sensory input can help soothe them when in overload.
These methods include
- Gentle but firm touch
- Slow rhythmic movements such as gentle swaying (except in movement sensitivity)
- Surrounding them with soft, warm light and gentle colours
- Giving them something soft, smooth and sweet to eat or drink
- Surrounding them with subtle lavender or chamomile scents
Alerting Sensory Input
For under-sensitive children, using alerting methods can help activate their senses to make them more aware or responsive.
These methods include:
- Light physical touch
- Loud music
- Surrounding them with bright lights and colours
- Encouraging fast, irregular movement
- Giving them something cold or sour to eat or drink
- Surrounding them with citrus smells
By being aware of what upsets your child or knowing what your child needs to feel adequately stimulated, you can help make their uncomfortable situations easier to manage.
Kay Dee Educare Centre in Mowbray Cape Town
Our curriculum focuses on early childhood development and we provide the right amount of stimulation and individual care your child needs.
Children who have sensory processing disorder do not need to be kept away from normal day to day activities. With careful monitoring and support, your child will be able to integrate smoothly.
For more information about our Educare programme, contact us.