What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) — formerly referred to as sensory integration dysfunction — is a neurological condition that interferes with the body’s ability to interpret sensory messages from the brain and convert those messages into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. It's not uncommon to feel occasional sensory overload — that is, to feel overwhelmed by distracting noises or crowded spaces or strong odors once in a while — but for children with SPD, these sensations disrupt and overwhelm everyday life.
Sensory Processing Disorder may make it difficult to filter out unimportant sensory information, like the background noise of a busy school hallway, and causes children to feel overwhelmed and over-stimulated in certain environments. Or SPD may make it difficult to take in important sensory information; a child who has tripped may not react quickly enough to soften her fall, for example. In addition, SPD may make it difficult to pinpoint the source of bodily pain or gauge the appropriate pressure to use when writing with a pencil. SPD may make children feel that their bodies are uncooperative, that they always disappoint others, and that they are failures.
What Are the Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder in Children?
These emotions may manifest as anxiety or temper tantrums or meltdowns — all reactions that may understandably be mistaken for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But if your child gets upset consistently in the same noisy or smelly environment, or when asked to eat the same specific foods as other kids, or when bothered by itchy tags in his clothing, or when frustrated figuring out how to orient his body to get dressed, he may be dealing with SPD.
Other children with SPD crave activities that will stimulate their senses. This could entail riding a bicycle too fast down a steep hill or performing flips on the monkey bars — daredevil acts that could, likewise, look a lot like ADHD hyperactivity. Another difficulty is poor discrimination of sensations. Is the water hot or cold? Is this the right buttonhole? Has the steak been chewed sufficiently before swallowing? Did someone say "Go" or "No?" Is that word "bug" or "dug?" These kids may have sensory processing challenges, not attentional issues.
In the self-test below, select the statement that most accurately describes your child's behavior and share the results with your child’s physician.
Adapted from the SPD checklist from the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder. This is not a diagnostic tool. An occupational therapist trained in sensory integration is the best professional to make an accurate diagnosis through clinical evaluation.