Sensory Processing: What is it and What if something goes wrong?

April 6, 2015

 

What is Sensory Processing?

Sensory processing is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into responses. Sensory integration is a normal, neurological, developmental process which begins in the womb and continues throughout one’s life.

 

Whether you are eating, playing, exercising, or working, your successful completion of the activity requires processing multiple sensation at once– also called "sensory integration."

 

What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that exists when sensory signals don't get organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., described SPD as a neurological "traffic jam" that occurs in the primitive brainstem, where sensory processing begins and thus interferes with translating sensory input into meaningful thought and action. As a result, you are unable to focus in on and act on your world efficiently, purposefully and in an organized way.

 

What causes SPD?

SPD is believed to come from any condition that affects the integrity of the central nervous system. These may include: genetics, trauma, and environmental issues. Ongoing research is still needed.

 

How do I know if my child or I have SPD?

Sensory processing functions on a continuum. We all have difficulty processing certain sensory stimuli (a certain touch, smell, taste, sound, movement etc.) and we all have sensory preferences. It only becomes a sensory processing disorder when we are on extreme ends of the continuum or experience “disruptive, unpredictable fluctuations which significantly impact our developmental skills or everyday functioning”.

 

SPD is most commonly diagnosed in children. Some of the possible issues that children with SPD struggle with are: low tone, motor coordination or motor planning problems, postural deficits, behavioral problems, learning difficulties or school failure, under or over responsiveness to sensory input, challenges with social/emotional development, and feelings of low self esteem.

 

Many adults also struggle with symptoms of SPD. They may have life long struggles or possibly new struggles due to a trauma or accident. In an adult, it may look like difficulty performing routines and activities involved in work, close relationships, and recreation, as well as, depression, underachievement or social isolation. It is also not uncommon for someone suffering from SPD to have been misdiagnosed with a mental health issues such as tension, anxiety, avoidance, stress, anger, panic, and even violence.

 

What are types of SPD?

 

Sensory Modulation Disorder

A basic problem in regulating responses or registering sensation.  Problems are often seen in fluctuating emotions that are made worse with stress and vary with the situation.  These are sometime confused with attention and focus

 

Sensory Discrimination Disorder

A problem with recognizing or interpreting differences or similarities in qualities of information often affecting learning.

 

Sensory Based Motor Disorders

Movement disorders that interfere with coordination and execution of unfamiliar actions resulting in awkward and poorly coordinated motor skills.  

 

What can I do if I suspect that my child or I are suffering with SPD?

It is important to get in touch with an occupational therapist that is trained in sensory integration. The therapist will take a thorough history and then do an evaluation. There are many treatments that can help to reduce or alleviate the symptoms of SPD. Also, becoming aware of your triggers or how you process sensory information can allow you to manage your symptoms and adapt your environment.

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