“You can’t punish a child who is acting out because of sensory overload.” Temple Grandin

1 in 6 children have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). This month of October, social media will light up with SPD Awareness Month announcements, in addition to Breast Cancer Awareness, Pregnancy and Infant Loss, and other causes. I want to bring attention to SPD because it is often overlooked by it’s more commonly known cousin, autism.

Children who are diagnosed with SPD do not necessarily have autism, but those will autism likely do have at least some elements of SPD. SPDstar.org refers to SPD as  “the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Whether you are biting into a sandwich, riding a bicycle, or reading a book, your successful completion of the activity requires accurate processing of sensation” (SPDstar.org, 2017).

Jean Ayres, pioneering occupational therapist and neurologist described a “traffic jam” in the brain when a child has SPD (Ayres, 2005). The sensory “electrical wires” get crossed, so to speak, whereby the individual processes incoming information either too slow, too fast, too much pressure, too little pressure, etc. The senses include proprioceptive (the input of gravity on joints), vestibular (the sense of the body in space), auditory (hearing), visual, and tactile, among other systems.

When these basic sensory systems are off-kilter, or out-of-sync, as educator Carol Kranowicz (2016) describes, then learning becomes very difficult for the child. Sensory input is skewed and log-jammed, resulting in behavioral output that can resemble ADHD type behaviors such as, poor focus and concentration, hyperactivity, sensory-seeking activity (slamming into objects for proprioceptive input), tactile sensitivity (can’t wear certain clothes because the fabric is too much pressure on skin), etc.

The good news is that children with SPD can see great improvement in self-regulatory behaviors via the use of occupational therapy (OT). Therapeutic activities in an OT gym will help children with sensory challenges to be able to function with daily activities. An occupational therapist may provide a specific sensory diet of activities that help the child to experience sensory input that results in self-regulatory/calming/activating behaviors, essentially integrating the senses in such a way that the child is able to process sensory input adequately to function and utilize higher order cognitive processing required in settings like school and social activities.

If your child appears to be exhibiting some confusing behaviors as a result of a “traffic jam” in her brain, consider an evaluation through your child’s school district. Most public schools provide an assessment to rule out learning challenges which impact the ability to focus, concentrate and retain information. Occupational therapy and speech therapy can be invaluable in helping children to adequately process incoming information, so that they are able to respond accordingly to social, academic, and other settings.  Do not delay in getting your child evaluated. Interventions to assist children with SPD are transformative.

Helpful websites:

  • SPDfoundation.net (SPD Foundation)
  • SensoryPlanet.com (social network for parents)
  • LDonline.com (for learning disabilities, SPD, ADD/ADHD, autism)
  • Special-Ism.com (resources, support, advocacy, stigma reduction)
  • Understood.org
  • SPDstar.org
  • SPDsupport.org

Helpful books:

Ayres, A. J., & Robbins, J. (2005). Sensory integration and the child: understanding hidden sensory challenges. Los Angeles, CA: WPS.

  • The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping With Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Kranowicz (2005)
  • Growing an In-Sync Child: Simple, Fun Activities to Help Every Child Develop, Learn, and Grow by Carol Kranowicz (2010)
  • The Out-of-Sync Child Grows Up:Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder in the Adolescent and Young Adult Years by Carol Kranowicz (2016)
  • Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Disorder by Nancy Peske (2009)
  • Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder by Lucy Jane Miller (2014, 2nd Edition)