This week we will be publishing a short series of posts addressing Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). This can present
Sensory Processing Disorger can present in a range of ways in people. Each child and adult with SPD have their own way of coping and their own pattern of differences in how their sensory system works. You may recognise some of these challenges. It is currently thought that up to 1 in 20 children are affected by SPD. (SPD Australia http://www.spdaustralia.com.au/)
Your sensory system takes in sensory information from the environment and your own body. The well-known senses: vision, hearing, taste, touch, smell are not the only senses. Proprioception – the sense of where your body is and the and Vestibular sense – processing movement and giving you your sense of balance are vital systems allowing you to function in your everyday activities. The final sense is Interoception. This little-known sense is involved in the internal regulation responses, such as hunger, feeling full, needing to go to the toilet, respiration rate, and heart rate.
People with SPD can experience differences in processing the information from one sense or multiple senses. They can be over responsive – Hypersensitive and avoid the sensory input or under responsive – Hyposensitive and they seek the sensory input.
The sensory system provides information from your central nervous system to your brain which is then processed and prioritised.
What is tolerable one day can be unbearable the next as irritating sensory inputs can compound. Thought processes can impact on how the sensation is processed. Picture the already late, stressed parent struggling to get the kids out the door when the baby spits up over their shirt and the dog gets out, making them late for school drop off and work. A child with SPD that might have the overwhelming experience of getting up, having to eat a texture that is uncomfortable then brush teeth which could cause nausea, having hair brushed that feels painful, smelling fragrances from soaps, perfumes, shampoos or deodorants can cause discomfort including headaches, having to wear a school uniform that is itchy and being overwhelmed by these feelings forgetting their lunchbox or dropping their homework and having a meltdown.
Sensory information can be overwhelming, particularly for children who have little to no control over their environment and cannot communicate their experiences. These children may not understand that their experience of the world is different from their peers and may not realise that there is an alternative way of existing and moving through the world.
A challenging sensory experience may lead to anxiety and produce a flight, fight, fright reaction in the person. These reactions are often misinterpreted as bad behaviour, tantrums, ignoring, being overly emotional, being inattentive. A child under extreme stress may have a melt down or may actually shut down. Our bodies and minds work hard to protect us from possible threatening situations.
When there is SPD it is thought that the brain is not processing and prioritising the incoming information correctly. For example the background hum of a central air system in a school would fade into the background for most people, a person with SPD would potentially hear that hum for the duration of the class, unable to ignore it and keep their focus only on the teacher’s voice. Walking into the classroom if I mentioned the air conditioning the students would easily direct their attention to the sound and back. This ability to focus in on certain background sounds and then ignore them when they are no longer relevant is essential for attention and learning.
When you are in a crowded room, if the person standing next to you engaged in a conversation with anther person starts mentioning your name you will quickly find your attention diverted from your current conversation and turned over instead to your neighbour’s conversation. If you discover it is not you that they are talking about your mind quickly returns to your current conversation. This “tuning in” and “tuning out” happens throughout the course of the day as your body takes in the sensory inputs from the environment quickly scanning all incoming information to produce the correct response. If your child seems to ignore their name yet has been tested and found to have normal hearing and language skills they may be having difficulty prioritising that collection of sounds over the other sounds in their environment at that time. These examples are referring to sound modulation, but this skill is relevant to the other senses. Difficulty in sensory MODULATION can be exhausting and can cause significant anxiety. Difficulties with sensory modulation can affect learning and memory.
These challenges can result in additional difficulties as children may start to avoid experiences, seek other experiences and may struggle with increasingly complex demands. Emotional outbursts, meltdowns and behavioural challenges, self-esteem, and confidence can be affected.
Understanding SPD can be the first step towards helping your child.
Start to learn the signs for your child that indicates what is sensory and what is behaviour.
Provide control and choices to your sensory sensitive child where possible and safe.
Provide safe access to sensory play for your sensory seeking child.
Provide sensory play options that feel safe for your sensory sensitive child.
Heavy work / proprioceptive play such as climbing, crawling, lifting, pushing play and chores (age appropriate) can be very helpful to meet the sensory needs of our brains.