in an effort to better understand one of Mikisa’s diagnoses, i decided to research sensory processing disorder and share some of the fascinating information i have gathered. i have worked with many children with sensory challenges, and each child is unique…but in order to effectively help a child with any type of sensory challenge, it is important to first understand the root of some of their behaviors.
Stanley Greenspan, author of The Challenging Child, describes sensory processing disorder this way:
“Imagine driving a car that isn’t working well. When you step on the gas the car sometimes lurches forward and sometimes doesn’t respond. When you blow the horn it sounds blaring. The brakes sometimes slow the car, but not always. The blinkers work occasionally, the steering is erratic, and the speedometer is inaccurate. You are engaged in a constant struggle to keep the car on the road, and it is difficult to concentrate on anything else.”
sensory processing is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. whether you are eating food, riding a bicycle, or reading a book, your successful completion of the activity requires processing sensation or “sensory integration.”
sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses. it is essentially 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 has difficulties processing and responding to information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks.
there are three subtypes of sensory processing disorder: over- responsive, under-responsive and sensory-seeking. children with over-responsive type have more difficulty filtering out repeated or irrelevant sensory information. these children are easily overstimulated and display fight, flight, or freeze defensive responses. this can result in frequent meltdowns, withdrawal from others, or severe aggression after being touched. in the second subtype, children who are under-responsive tend to require strong stimulation to be aware of the stimulus. they tune out easily and often seem unaware of what is going on around them. they often have a very high pain tolerance and seem fearless in dangerous situations. the sensory-seeking subtype craves and seeks out sensory experiences. they twirl on the tire swing long after other children have moved on to different activities. they run and crash into things or people for the sensation. they listen best when they are active. they are soothed by being held tight, accompanied by strong, rhythmic motions.
international adoption and SPD
sensory processing disorder has a strong correlation with children who have been abandoned, neglected, or institutionalized. it is also seen frequently in children who move to a new country at a young age. therefore there is a strong possibility that children adopted internationally will experience some degree of SPD. it makes sense because of the sudden and extreme culture shock. a child who has never experienced loving touch, for example, would not be soothed by a hug. a child who has only slept on cold, hard concrete doesn’t know that a soft bed is what we consider comforting. a child who has never played with toys and whose only enjoyment has been sifting through dirt and rocks would not even know how to play with typical toys. a child who has never had running water or electricity might be very frightened by fluorescent lights or the sound of a shower. all of this newness, new faces and people, new sounds, new language, new foods, combined with their new, “instant family” is bound to trigger some anxiety and overstimulation. so it isn’t surprising that many adopted children from other countries struggle with SPD.
treatment of sensory processing disorder
most children with SPD are just as intelligent as their peers. some have other disabilities, but many are intellectually gifted. their brains are simply wired differently. they need to be taught in ways that are adapted to how they process information, and they need leisure activities that suit their own sensory processing needs. once children with SPD have been accurately diagnosed, they benefit from a treatment program of occupational therapy with a sensory integration approach.
just as a child needs food throughout the course of the day, their need for sensory input must also be met. a “sensory diet” is a carefully designed, personalized activity plan that provides the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day. each child has a unique set of sensory needs.
a sensory diet helps in restructuring a child’s nervous system over time so that he or she is better able to tolerate sensations and situations the child finds challenging, regulate their alertness and increase attention span, limit sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding behaviors, and handle transitions with less stress. depending on the child’s individual sensory needs, there are different types of input than can be effective in creating a sensory diet.
proprioceptive input (sensations from joints, muscles and connective tissues that lead to body awareness) can be obtained by lifting, pushing, and pulling heavy objects. a child can also stimulate the proprioceptive sense by engaging in activities that push joints together like pushing something heavy or pull joints apart like hanging from monkey bars. other activities include jumping, joint compression, and deep pressure massage.
vestibular input involves the sense of movement, centered in the inner ear. any type of movement will stimulate the vestibular receptors, but spinning, swinging, and hanging upside down provide the most intense, longest lasting input. rolling on the ground, dancing and swimming are also good forms of vestibular input.
tactile input involves light touch, deep pressure, texture, temperature, vibration, and brushing. oral tactile issues can contribute to picky eating and feeding difficulties. tactile input can be a lot of fun! some ideas are playing with foamy soap or shaving cream, sand, fingerpaint, cookie dough, dry beans and rice, playdoh. other things that are helpful in this area are dressing up to get used to the feeling of unfamiliar clothing, going barefoot in the grass or dirt, eating hot and cold foods simultaneously, and doing crafts.
auditory input refers to both what we hear and how we listen, and is physiologically connected with the vestibular sense. in addition to various types of recorded and live music, kids and adults can get calming and organizing auditory input from outdoor sounds like thunder, rain, moving water, birds singing, wind. encouraging the child to play a musical instrument can be helpful. there is also listening therapy for children who have auditory processing difficulties. one thing we have found helpful is to reduce the amount of words we use. instead of saying, “we are going to go to the park and then we’re going to eat”, we say “first park, then eat”. this reduces stress and allows for easier processing.
visual input can often be overstimulating for a child with sensory issues. think about ways you can simplify the visual field at home or school for a calming, organizing effect. providing picture symbols with verbal cues may help a child with transitions between activities. alternately, if the child seems “tuned out” and doesn’t respond easily to visual stimulation, add brightly colored objects to encourage visual attention. for example, a child who has trouble getting aroused for play may be attracted by a brightly painted toy chest filled with toys in appealing colors. a child who seem unable to watch a ball as it rolls may be able to watch it if the ball lights up or makes noise as it moves. it is important to avoid excess visuals in a child’s play area and remove clutter. plain-colored clothing (versus shirts with writing or excessive prints) helps.
olfactory input (sense of smell) comes through the nose and goes straight to the most primitive, emotional part of the brain. so if your child is upset by something being stinky, it’s no wonder. certain odors can stimulate, calm, or cause sensory overload. everyone has different preferences, but vanilla and rose scents are generally calming. peppermint and citrus are usually alerting.
so there you have it! my extra-long, overly detailed explanation of a very complex but intriguing disorder. sorry if you’re feeling overstimulated by this overload of information. really i wrote this more out of personal interest than anything else, but i thought other parents may be interested in some of the information.
here is a link with some helpful websites for parents of children with SPD: