Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder

Currently there is a buzz word out there that is understood by some, and misunderstood by others.  That word is Sensory Processing Disorder.  Many parents wonder if this could be impacting their children, and the way that they learn.  It is a term that the medical community is just beginning to learn about, and they also have questions about.

When we think of our senses we typically think of the 5 common ones which include taste, smell, touch, hearing and tasting.  We are learning that although these are the typical ones, there are actually 3 additional senses that provide information about what is going on within the body.  These fall into 3 different categories that include interoception which is sensations from inside the body and that are perceived through internal organs.  An example of an interoception is the feeling of hunger or fullness in the stomach.

The second is proprioception and this is defined as the sensation about body position and movement.  Proprioceptive input is perceived through vestibular, proprioceptive and kinesthetic sensory systems.  An example of proprioception is the feeling of the head turning and of muscles contracting.  The 3rd sense is the exteroceptors and these are sensations from outside the body.  They are perceived through taste, smell, touch, hearing and vision.  An example of exterocetptors is seeing a friend and hearing your name being called.

Jean Ayres was the first to emphasize the importance of these hidden senses.  She noted a disorder in processing and integrating sensory information known as sensory integration dysfunction that is specifically identified as the inability to process and integrates information from the body and the environment.  (Schaaf. R & Smith Roley, S (2006) Sensory Integration: Applying Clinical Reasoning to Practice with Diverse Populations.

You will find that children with SPD appear to have good days and bad days, with apparent no rhyme or reason to

their behaviors.  This can be very frustrating not only to others interacting with this child, more even more so to the child himself.

Carol Stock Kranowitz describes the “Five Caveats” in her book, “The Out-Of-Sync Child” (1995).  These caveats are essential to keep in mind if you are completing a checklist on your child, or just trying to figure out why they may be acting one way at this particular time, and another way another time.  She writes:

“The child with sensory dysfunction does not necessarily exhibit every characteristic. Thus, the child with vestibular dysfunction may have poor balance but good muscle tone.”

“Sometimes the child will show characteristics of a dysfunction one day but not the next. For instance, the child with proprioceptive problems may trip over every bump in the pavement on Friday yet score every soccer goal on Saturday. Inconsistency is a hallmark of every neurological dysfunction.”

“The child may exhibit characteristics of a particular dysfunction yet not have that dysfunction. For example, the child who typically withdraws from being touched may seem to be hypersensitive to tactile stimulation but may, instead, have an emotional problem.”

“The child may be both hypersensitive and hyposensitive. For instance, the child may be extremely sensitive to light touch, jerking away from a soft pat on the shoulder, while being rather indifferent to the deep pain of an inoculation.”

“Everyone has some sensory integration problems now and then, because no one is well regulated all the time. All kinds of stimuli can temporarily disrupt normal functioning of the brain, either by overloading it with, or by depriving it of, sensory stimulation.”

We invite you to read more at The Sensory Processing Disorder website .  On this site are a variety of checklists, as well as activity suggestions to address possible dysfunction.

Please be advised that an Occupational Therapist needs to fully evaluate a child in order to appropriately diagnosis a sensory processing disorder.  If you are beginning this journey I wish you success.  Please know that you are not the only parent out there, and that your children are probably just as frustrated and confused as you are! 

The Out of Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz, M.A.
The Out of Sync Child Has Fun by Carol Stock Kranowitz, M.A.
Too loud, too bright, too fast, too tight by Sharon Heller,Ph.D.

  1. Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Integration Issues  by Lindsey Biel, Nancy Peske
  2. www.alertprogram.com