Do you find yourself perpetually perplexed by some of your child’s seemingly inexplicable behaviors? Does your son take excessive risks, often jumping or crashing into anything he can? Maybe your child loves shockingly strong hugs but can’t tolerate the slightest brush on the arm. When it comes to food, does your daughter crave raw lemons but turn her head in disgust at milder foods like mozzarella cheese or eggs? These are a few examples of behaviors displayed in children with sensory processing issues. There is debate over whether or not children who display these behaviors should receive a diagnosis independent of any other developmental one, such as an autism spectrum disorder. However, despite the differing viewpoints, there is agreement that children with these issues face challenges in many areas of functioning.
People receive sensory input through movement and balance, body posture, and muscle control in addition to the basic five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. When an individual is over-sensitive to one or more sensory areas the experience can be overwhelming, like a body and mind traffic jam. Under-sensitive people tend to miss the stimuli altogether. Concentrating is nearly impossible in either scenario, learning is impeded, and responding appropriately to peers, family members, and teachers is challenging. Worst of all, if a child has a sensory processing issue and the people around him don’t understand how it’s affecting his behavior, they can be at a loss for how to help. Adults and peers might become frustrated and either reprimand or avoid a child.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is relatively unheard of due to its absence in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which is used by psychologists and psychiatrists to guide diagnosis and treatment. Nevertheless, sensory processing issues are very common among children with autism spectrum disorders and attention disorders. They also occur in children without any official diagnosis. For this reason, the Interdisciplinary Council for Developmental and Learning Disorders (ICDL) has included SPD along with various subcategories into its diagnostic manual which will be especially helpful for those treating children from infancy through early childhood (ICDL-DMIC; for more information visit www.icdl.com). This increases the chances that children with sensory processing issues will get the help they need.
Treatment for SPD is play-based and fun and involves immersing children in sensory-rich environments. The most effective programs are expert driven but family centered so that therapeutic techniques are practiced throughout the week. The key is to help children achieve an optimal level of arousal for their bodies and brains so they are open to interacting and learning. For kids with SPD this means rewiring the brain, which is done by exposing children to a variety of stimuli. In the exposure process, children learn to gradually integrate various kinds of sensory information. This helps them to make sense of the world and feel secure exploring without frequent tantrums or meltdowns.
The causes of SPD are not yet fully understood, but the impact of having it untreated is increasingly salient. Children with SPD are typically just as intelligent as their peers and some are even considered gifted. Their brains are simply wired differently. Thankfully occupational therapy (OT) has been shown to help those with SPD, sometimes in combination with other therapies. With or without a label, adults and children alike have their own individual sensory profiles. Some of us like deep tissue massages while others can’t tolerate anyone touching their backs, for example. The important thing is to recognize when children’s differences become problematic and to support them as they learn to acclimate to new stimuli and environments.
Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing in Westchester and New York City. Jaime works with high-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum, doing psychotherapy, conducting evaluations, and facilitating various socialization groups including an improv social skills group. Visit www.spectrumservicesnyc.com, e-mail JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com or call (914)712-8208.
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