Tell Me About SPD

Girl covering her ears and shouting.

Photo: iStock

I wrote several posts about childhood apraxia of speech in the weeks leading up to the Oregon Apraxia Walk on October 12,  and I’ve received some great responses from parents of children struggling with this difficult motor-speech disorder. But many “apraxia kids” deal with more than apraxia. Often there are other issues that accompany it. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to talk about some of these other challenges.

Sensory Processing Disorder

We suspect Anna might be dealing with a mild form of this disorder. But she might just be a fidgety child. Some of the tendencies we’ve noticed—putting things in her mouth, speaking loudly, forgetting about personal space, and roughhousing an inappropriate times—may just be normal kid behaviors exaggerated  by her recent change of school. Right now, we’re watching, researching, and seeing if she settles down as she gets used to her new surroundings.

What is it? (from SPD Foundation)

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD, formerly known as “sensory integration dysfunction”) is a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively.

What are the warning signs? (from SPD Life)

This is a tricky question. Based on the little I’ve read, kids with SPD can be either over or under sensitive, and either seeking or discriminating. Each of these conditions presents differently.

  • Sensory Over-responsiveness. Those who experience sensory over-responsiveness are also commonly referred to as ‘sensory defensive’. A person with a hypersensitivity to sensory input will experience the world as a threatening, painful, and/or scary place. They are often hyper-vigilant and under a lot of stress, and may experience frequent meltdowns. They truly have weak filters for sensory input.
  • Sensory under-responsiveness. Those who experience sensory under-responsiveness have a hyposensitivity to sensory input. They often have low levels of energy and have difficulty arousing their nervous systems. Often very absorbed in their own ‘little worlds’, they may also fail to notice sensory information that would typically be alarming for others. They simply don’t sense what others can.
  • Sensory seeking. Sensory seekers simply can’t get enough, of anything, literally! Those who suffer from Sensory Seeking Disorder, otherwise known as Sensory Offensiveness, are constantly in search of ways to arouse their starved nervous systems. Often hyperactive and impulsive, they are frequently labeled, either correctly or falsely, with ADHD. However, if they are able to get enough of the input they crave, they just might be able to calm down and focus.
  • Sensory discriminating. People with Sensory Discrimination Disorder truly live in a different world. Their brains are giving them jumbled or confused information, making it difficult for them to determine the source, frequency, or pitch of a sensation. This can make the world a terribly confusing place to live in, and makes learning difficult.

SPD Life includes extensive checklists for each version of SPD. This site is geared more to adults, but the SPD Foundation website also includes a general checklist broken down by age. As with any checklist, you’ll want to see a large number of positives before seeking a diagnosis from a qualified professional.

What treatment strategies work best? (Back to SPD Foundation)

Treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder is a fun, play-based intervention that takes place in a sensory-rich environment. Private clinics and practices, hospital outpatient departments, and university occupational therapy programs are typical places where treatment for SPD or for sensory issues in disorders such as ADHD and Autism may be found. Children are most commonly treated for SPD with occupational therapy (OT) that may be supplemented with listening therapy (LT) or other complementary therapies. Sometimes other professionals such as physical therapists, speech/language therapists, teachers, and/or others who have advanced training in using a sensory integration approach may be involved in treatment.

In her book  Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children With Sensory Processing Disorder, Dr. Lucy Jane Miller asks a series of questions to guide the therapist through evaluating and treating a child with SPD (using the mnemonic  “A SECRET”).

  • Attention: Is there a way to enhance sustained or divided attention to people and activities around the child?
  • Sensation: Is there a way to modify the child’s responses to sensory input?
  • Emotion: What emotion is the child experiencing, and can these emotions be regulated?
  • Culture: What part of the family’s culture (habits and routines) can be changed to avoid challenging situations?
  • Relationship: Is there something in the relationships experienced by the child that is causing his or her responses? For example, does the child need closer support or need more space?
  • Environment: What in the environment is not optimal for the child? How can those environmental factors be modified?
  • Task: What is troubling the child or difficult about the task at hand? How can the task be modified so that it is not so problematic?

Using this list, the therapist adjusts treatment based on the needs of each child.

What do I do now?

I said this last week, but it bears repeating. Remember how frustrating this is for your child, and try to be patient. But don’t let it become an excuse for bad behavior. Be patient, be strong,  and persevere. It may be the hardest thing you ever have to do, but you are child’s dragon-slayer, and no one ever said that slaying dragons was easy.

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