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Sensory Processing Disorder - An Often Misunderstood Piece to the Puzzle

Browsing around the internet, I recently stumbled upon a tweet from a prominent person with autism.

The entire thread inspired me, as a neurotypical professional, to dig deeper. Many neurodivergent individuals expressed their increased anxiety following exposure therapy, which broke my heart as I know parents put their children in these therapies believing they are doing what's right.

We just truly do not understand. And we can't. Because we are not in their brains.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

A large number of doctors do not believe that SPD exists, although that number is shrinking. According to WebMD, "sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses." It may involve one sense, several, or all. Symptoms can include things such as:

  • Bumping into things

  • Discoordinated movements

  • Over sensitivity to lights, sounds, touches

  • Seeking bright lights, listening to loud sounds

  • Extremely rough play, excessive jumping on or off furniture, etc.

These are just some of the potential symptoms, but it's very important to note every child with SPD has different ways that it affects them. It's also important to note that SPD can occur with or without having autism or other developmental differences.

If you believe your child is at risk for sensory processing disorder, it's important to contact an occupational therapist who is familiar with SPD for diagnosis and treatment.

Sensory Processing Disorder and Communication Skills

As a speech language pathologist, I do not work directly with SPD, except during feeding therapy; however many of my children are impacted by SPD. It affects their ability to focus during classroom and daily tasks, as many times being over-stimulated is distracting and nearly impossible to ignore. Being under-stimulated also negatively impacts attention, as children who are under-stimulated may appear distant and "day-dreaming", but in actuality, they just need more sensory input to help their brain focus on what's important. It's almost as if they are stuck in a searching mode as they try to find something that will help capture their neurological system, which isn't nearly as fun as "day-dreaming" may seem.

SPD can also affect auditory processing and reading. This is often diagnosed as auditory processing disorder and is diagnosed by an audiologist. Over- and under-sensitivities to sound may cause the child to disengage during classroom and conversational tasks. Maybe the teacher has a voice that's too high pitch, or maybe someone has shoes that squeak while they walk and it's confusing to track that sound as it moves around the room. These can all greatly impact a child's ability to perform and learn in daily situations, thus affecting their ability to communicate and use language similar to their peers.

If you believe your child is at risk for sensory processing disorder, it's important to contact an occupational therapist who is familiar with SPD for diagnosis and treatment. A speech-language pathologist can help in addressing any subsequent communication, language or reading challenges that have resulted.

Sensory Integration Therapy

First, let me describe Exposure Therapy, as mentioned in the beginning of my post. Exposure Therapy typically is used to treat anxiety-based reactions to a stimulus or stimuli. It involves learning relaxation exercises, such as breathing techniques, and using them while exposed to your anxiety producer in a hierarchy of ways. Let's use the trigger of spiders for this example. The first step may just be thinking about "spiders" while deep breathing. Once this is mastered, you may be shown a picture of a spider. Next may be knowing a spider is in a box across the room. Then the spider is in a glass box, so you can see him, across the room. Then you move closer, or the glass box is opened, etc. The theory here is that you are creating a "calm" mind and a calm state in the presence of your fear.

Sensory Integration Therapy is similar in that you are exposed to stimuli in a hierarchy and some of these stimuli may be anxiety-producing. It is different than "exposure therapy" in that it doesn't address anxiety with breathing exercises, etc. Rather, under the careful guidance of a qualified OT, your brain is ideally re-trained in how to deal with the stimuli or you are given strategies to cope with sensory differences you are experiencing. You are taught it "integrate" your sensory system, something that for neurotypical children occurred naturally with varying degrees of success.

Sensory Processing Disorder affects those diagnosed with it on a daily basis. It is not something they can just "get over" or "deal with". It is painful and I cannot imagine how isolating it must feel. Imagine if a hug felt like a knife? Or if you'd rather be "punched in the face" than hearing someone say "YAY!"? These are things my children have described to me during our sessions regarding their sensory differences. It's important that we are sensitive to their differences, and as possible make accommodations or supports to allow for us all to integrate together. has a wealth of information regarding SPD, along with this helpful guide of at-home strategies you can use. I think my favorite is the one for putting on winter clothes!

Do you or your child have SPD? What helps you deal with differences in sensory processing? What works and what doesn't? Share your thoughts with us below.

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