Getting Sensible About Sensory Processing Disorder

The†American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a†statement saying that sensory processing disorder (SPD) — a condition in which children have unusual sensory sensitivities that affect their everyday functioning and much else — should not be a diagnosed condition in and of itself. The AAP does acknowledge that sensory integration therapies can be helpful to children with diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorders, ADHD/ADD and others.

My teenage son Charlie is autistic and there has not been a need to press for a particular diagnosis of sensory processing disorder. Still, a thorough understanding of sensory processing issues and of sensory integrative therapies has been very helpful in understanding some of his puzzling behaviors (sniffing people’s hands after shaking them).

Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder in a Child

We used to take Charlie†into New York almost every weekend. My husband Jim teaches there and Charlie and I would take the PATH train and then the subway up to Columbus Circle. Midtown Manhattan is always bustling with people and taxis and life; with sights, noises, smells. It is what you could call a sensory assault — and that is precisely why those trips to NYC have become a thing of the past for Charlie, due to his highly over-sensitive sensory system that causes him to hear, smell, feel and even see things with extreme intensity and acuity.

Charlie has super-sensitive hearing and puts his hands over his ears when he hears an airplane high above our heads. He has what seems to be (we can never know many of these things for sure as Charlie is only minimally verbal) a photographic memory certainly for places and people. He has a keen sense of smell (hence, the palm-sniffing). We also suspect that he has synesthesia in which (for example) numbers and letters are experienced as having particular colors or textures (there is a fascinating description of this in Daniel Tammet’s book Born On a Blue Day).

We weren’t aware that Charlie had these sensory issues until he was about 6 years ago. I think he always had them but simply wasn’t as aware himself plus we too had to become more aware of sensory processing disorder. We know that Charlie has a full panoply of unusual responses to sensory stimuli be they tastes, textures (of food and clothes — no wool sweaters, no buttons, thank you), sounds (motorcyclists revving their engines and the clang of metal on metal are visibly painful to him) and even sights (he much prefers to have things lined up in neat little groupings throughout our house). This knowledge has helped to understand why Charlie balks at walking into most stores due to the fluorescent lighting and is overwhelmed at the sight of row on row of food items in supermarkets: It is just too much.

There are therapies, often provided in school settings as part of special education services, for sensory processing issues. Sensory integration therapy is provided by occupational therapists who often use a small arsenal of equipment from swings (that gentle motion is comforting; do you remembering swinging on a swingset?); weighted blankets, vests and other items (on the theory that such can help to settle a “disordered” sensory system); special brushes.

There are many more products and my son has used many though, frankly, these have been less helpful to soothe him than some of his own devising (he has a large fleece blanket that he likes to wrap himself in; he used to, when younger, love to crouch at the bottom of the pool, to feel the weight of the water on his body; he often presses his hands over his ears to block out or modulate sound). Our understanding that his sensory system is “overloaded” and that he is trying to “process” something has perhaps been the most beneficial. Just last night, he was crying, writing and yelling in pain while feeling a massive change in the barometric pressure, as a storm moved in that would lower hot and humid 93 degree weather to something more seasonable for late May (i.e., late spring).

I have even thought that Charlie’s sensory issues are behind his difficulties in going to new and unfamiliar places, to traveling and having to encounter and realign himself with an entirely different sensory system, so to speak.

Doctors Wary of Diagnosing Sensory Processing Disorder

Many doctors have been wary to support sensory therapies due to a lack of scientific evidence though this†1982 study and this one from 2008 do provide some support. But evidence and studies aside, sensory issues are the kind of thing a parent may suspect and a child can be really feeling; being attuned to such can make a huge difference. As†Dr. Claudia M. Gold writes in the Boston Globe,†sensory processing is closely connected to our emotions and our managing of them — something that children, certainly, are very much figuring out and yet unable to articulate in words:

Sensory processing is intimately tied to emotional regulation, and our †ability to manage ourselves in a complex social environment.†The world may feel soft and inviting, or harsh and dangerous. In taking detailed histories from families of children with a range of behavioral and emotional problems, I have found that there is almost always some problem of sensory processing, often from birth.

Gold indeed suggests that understanding about sensory processing may be most important:

I wonder if we should we abandon altogether the search for a “disorder,” and instead focus on understanding a child’s experience of the world and helping him to make sense of and manage that experience. As I have said many times on this blog and in my book,†Keeping Your Child in Mind, children do well when the people who care for them understand them, and can see the world from their point of view. If we stay focused on this task, then a label with a “disorder” becomes necessary only †for the insurance company.

Therein lies the rub: Without a formal diagnosis, parents cannot get insurance coverage for occupational therapy for a child. They may also not be able to get OT through a school district and may have to seek out an additional and separate diagnosis, such as ADHD.

Parents wanting to help their kids can’t wait for researchers to carry out the next study to prove that this or that therapy is effective. More understanding that sensory issues are real and are truly experienced is just a start, but a good first step.


Related Care2 Coverage

You Canít Bleach Autism Out of a Child

The Food Revolution and the Future of Kids With Disabilities

Maurice Sendak In the Age of Overprotective Parenting

Photo by gemsling


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

I can't imagine living with this sort of issue. My heart goes out to sufferers and their families

Shan D.
Shan D.4 years ago

@Cath G.: re "I used to love lying on the bottom of the deepest corner of the pool playing match box cars on the bottom for hours."

How often did you have to come up to grab some air? Or did you use oxygen tanks?

Cath G.
Cath G.4 years ago

...a block away! And what is nicer than being able to stand in traffic and still smell roses at the side of the road or better still, the explosion of gorgeous sensations of standing in a moonlit summer garden.
I'm certainly not trying to trivialise it but as an adult all you can do is become a zen master in public situations where you can't control the environment. And remember smashing the mobile over the kid on the bus's head won't make them all go away!

Cath G.
Cath G.4 years ago

Sarah J you're spot on.
I found out I was diagnosed as mildly autistic as a child a few years ago as an adult, and I've always had extremes of senses and many similar experiences to what all here are describing-I love the pool story. I used to love lying on the bottom of the deepest corner of the pool playing match box cars on the bottom for hours.
I was on the obsessive and precocious side and I'm glad my parents decided not to tell me there was anything 'wrong' with me. I just thought I was a weirdo pain in the arse as a child and a typical depressive angry rebel teen.
As for the sensory 'disorder'-I'll admit it is hard to explain to a young child they're special and everything will be fine but because I've never been told it was a bad thing I've always just dealt with it and can think of more times when it has been useful than a hindrance. I have had a few rough patches in my life but gentle positive therapies like NLP to control panic attacks and such etc helped me through. I work in an open plan office and had to get the fluorescent light above me removed, I have big headphones to block out conversation and the brightness on my computer screen down so low you have to be up quite close to see that I'm on facebook. I'm also a musician but my bandmates have just got used to having to turn everything down and I make delicate melancholy music with, I'm told, some success. Walking around late at night also feels safer when you know you'll be able to hear and smell someone a

Michelle Barager
Michelle Barager4 years ago

What an extraordinary experience to raise a child with such intellectual intelligence. Social situations are difficult for a large number of people, even those of us who understand most social queues, the brain is amazing, and I must commend mothers of these amazing individuals!

Elena B.
Elena B.4 years ago

Ok. Sensory Processing Dysfunction goes beyond emotions. Before writing an article about SPD, whether linked to other disorders or not, one should be thorough in the investigative process. My 8 year old son had been in OT since he was 5. While, just like any other child, a parent has to teach and help their child navigate through the ups and downs of growing up, SPD adds another dimension to raising children. He is very advanced intellectually, but delayed socially. And these delays do not come necessarily from an emotional immaturity. You are almost saying that parents that will not take responsibility for their children will want a diagnosis of SPD for something that could have been taken care of if they had disciplined them from the beginning. This is unfair to children that are afflicted with this dysfunction of their nervous system, which is the basis of SPD. Please, don't disseminate this type of info without all the facts. It is detrimental to the care of the children. By the way, we pay out of pocket for his weekly therapy because we DON'T have insurance.

Anie K.
Anita K.4 years ago

I'm an autistic person that has all this stuff, so I wrote/illustrated a book about it so to help others understand.

Took me forever to make the thing. Now I'm just trying to get the word out for exactly the reason this article was written. Y'all tell me what you think.;-)

Anie K.
Anita K.4 years ago

I'm an autistic person that has all this stuff, so I wrote/illustrated a book about it so to help others understand.

Took me forever to make the thing. Now I'm just trying to get the word out for exactly the reason this article was written. Y'all tell me what you think.;-)

Callie J.
Callie Johnson4 years ago

I think it's more common than people realize. I tend to get "tunnel vision" in supermarkets; otherwise it's difficult for me to focus on individual items. I had a friend, self-diagnosed with adult ADD, who also had difficulty in large stores - the sheer sensory assault was so much for her it was difficult for her to get her shopping done.

Past Member
Past Member 4 years ago

I'm really concerned about this because my son also seems to get very irritated by loud noises and situations where there's a lot happening. He's easily distracted in school and that is a big problem. He is very smart and I believe that schools need to be more aware of this problem and help the children that are going through this.