Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) manifests as hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory inputs. For years, it was seen as a symptom of autism. It was only in 2013, when a breakthrough study of the disorder showed that it had a biological basis that delineated it from other neurological disorders. More recent studies revealed that SPD is a disorder in itself, and that children can have SPD and not have autism, and vice versa.
What is the world of a child with SPD like?
Reaction to Sounds
Due to hypersensitivity to external stimulus, loud, high-pitched sounds, or even honking horns, vacuum cleaners or flushing toilets elicit strong responses or fear in a child with Sensory Processing Disorder. Background noises which others do not seem to notice, distract or startle a child with SPD; that is why wearing kids ear muffs is helpful.
Reaction to Touch
On the hypersensitivity side of the spectrum of behaviours, kids with this disorder fear big crowds and avoid standing close to others. They avoid hugs and cuddling even with people they know. A light touch or tap even from someone they know draws out a fearful response.
Hyposensitive reactions of kids with SPD on the other hand include an uncontrollable need to touch people or objects with certain textures even in inappropriate situations.
Preferred and feared activities
Swings and playground equipment which are great come ons for children can make a child with SPD anxious and jittery. Not comfortable with physical contact, a game of tag is not enjoyable to them. They do not like their feet to be off the ground, so climbing and falling make them overly nervous and agitated.
Problems with balance and fine motor skills
Kids with SPD are noted to have poor balance and have the tendency to fall often which then triggers strong reactions. Their movements seem uncoordinated and clumsy. They can be overwhelmed by their environment and “not see” things around them so they trip over furniture or bump people near them. Difficulty with fine motor skills like using pencils and crayons or buttoning their clothes is also observed in kids with SPD.
Response to Pain and other sensations
A child with SPD often has an extremely high pain threshold. Processing of feelings of pain, heat and coldness, hunger and tiredness are overwhelming and challenging. Parents of children with SPD should then be observant, sensitive and responsive and help their child correctly figure out their feelings.
Difficulty coping with transitions
Shifting from one activity to another is overwhelming for a child with SPD. Transferring rooms or houses, or moving from one classroom to another or even just changing the curtains of a room may cause meltdowns or withdrawal in the child.
Going from one place to another on a vehicle can trigger strong feelings of fear as the child with SPD is stimulated by different sights and sounds he cannot process well. Wearing kids ear muffs was observed to make the ride more bearable.
There is hope
Not all SPD cases are the same. Children with SPD experience and respond to the world around them differently. The good news is that there are different modes of treatment available, and they can be used in combination with other modes to fit the needs of the child. Seeking the service of an occupational therapist trained in handling sensory issues will be extremely helpful.