Sensory Processing Disorder

Do you understand anything about sensory processing disorder? We have a 3-year-old grandson who has been diagnosed with this. His parents have tried listening therapy with high and low pitches to organize his nervous system and are doing things to provide propriosepter (spelling?) input. Just wondering if you have any ideas about this or know of any good people for them to see.


Roy, St. Louis, MO


Imagine trying to pay attention in class with a jet engine roaring in your ear, while one person rubbed sandpaper on your skin and another kept punching you in the shoulder. Pretty difficult if not impossible, don’t you think? That’s what it’s like for a child with sensory processing disorder (SPD), sometimes known as sensory integration dysfunction. The jet engine is the noisy kindergarten classroom; the sandpaper is the shirt label rubbing against the skin and the punching is the teacher gently tapping for attention on the child’s shoulder.

What is sensory processing disorder?

The neurotypical brain constantly receives, interprets and connects streams of information coming in through the senses. Children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) have brains that distort the incoming data by either over or under amplifying it. The previous paragraph describes a child whose brain over-responds. Touches and sounds overwhelm this oversensitive child. He tries to cope with the bombardment by fidgeting and squirming. He tries to pay attention to the teacher but can’t.

Other children with SPD have the opposite problem. Their brains under-respond. Whereas the over-responder tries to escape stimulation, the under-responders seek it. So they run around to get a sense of movement and crash into other kids to get a sense of touch. They crave non-stop rocking, swaying, jumping, climbing, and twirling. Needless to say, these aren’t exactly the classroom behaviors that your average teacher appreciates.

Get the right diagnosis

It’s not surprising that many SPD kids receive an ADHD diagnosis because so many of their coping behaviors look the same. The ADHD approaches aren’t effective, of course, because the underlying problem is different—unless the child has both SPD and ADHD, which many children do. If you think reading this description is confusing, can you imagine being the beleaguered parent trying to sort it out in real life. That’s why my earlier advice to be a patient but persistent advocate is so important. It can take a while to sort out what’s really going on in there.

The most helpful interventions for kids wired with this type of brain do not come from medical or mental health professionals. Occupational therapists have developed techniques to identify the specific pattern of sensory responses for each child. That, in turn, enables them to construct an individualized treatment plan of exercises, sensory experiences, and self-regulation skill building that parents can use at home. Unless the child has additional problems beyond SPD, medication is not used in treatment.

Parenting tips for sensory processing disorder

  1. Sensory Processing Disorder is brain based and not the result of any parenting mistakes. It doesn’t help if you blame yourself. We don’t choose our genes.
  2. Seek the help of competent professionals and ask how much experience they have in treating Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Occupational therapists are often the most expert.
  3. I highly recommend The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Integration Dysfunction (Perigree, 1998). It’s the best book I know of for parents.
  4. Check out this well regarded website. http://www.spdnetwork.org It has a lot of solid information with links to local resources.