Sensory Processing Disorder (formerly known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction) is a disorder in which nervous system messages aren’t organized into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. About 1 in 20 children will be diagnosed with SPD, provided that they are even diagnosed correctly. Unfortunately misdiagnosis occurs often because healthcare professionals are not trained to correctly recognize these sensory issues. As an Occupational Therapist you can help these children avoid a life long struggle by understanding this disorder and how to treat it effectively.
Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological disorder, which is often confused as a spoiled child, a product of bad parenting, ADD, ADHD, defiant child or a mental illness. It is important to note, any of these could co-exist with a sensory processing disorder. Sensory processing is how input sent to the brain, organized, and utilized to interpret one’s environment and prepare the body to learn, move, regulate energy levels and emotions, interact, and develop properly.
When SPD symptoms appear, they must be taken seriously, as early as possible, and treated properly by a knowledgeable professional. Occupational Therapy is the most integral profession in the diagnosis and treatment of individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder. An effective OT will help children accommodate to and overcome sensory processing difficulties, so they do mature into adults without proper treatment.
In order to effectively treat your young and/ or old patients, it is helpful to understand the symptoms and how they relate to the different facets of this disorder. A full comprehensive SPD checklist has been developed however we will outline the salient points with a few examples.
Signs of Tactile Dysfunction
- Hypersensitivity To Touch (Tactile Defensiveness): A child may become fearful, anxious or aggressive to light to unexpected touch. Also may appear fearful of standing in close proximity of others (in line).
- Hyposensitivity To Touch (Under-Responsive): May crave touch and appears to need to touch everything and everyone, as well as not being bothered by injuries, like cuts and bruises.
- Poor Tactile Perception And Discrimination: May have difficulty with fine motor skills such as buttoning, zippering, fastening clothes, while also not being able to tell what part of a body was touched if they weren’t looking.
Signs of Vestibular Dysfunction
- Hypersensitivity to Movement (Over-Responsive): Child may dislike playground equipment such as swings, ladders, slides and my typically prefer sedentary activities.
- Hyposensitivity To Movement (Under-Responsive): This child may prefer to constant motion because they can’t sit still. Typically enjoy intense movement experiences, involving quick acceleration or spinning.
- Poor Muscle Tone And/Or Coordination: In this case the child may have a limp, “floppy” body while frequently slumping or laying down when at desk. In some cases they may grasp objects tightly to compensate for looseness.€
Signs of Proprioceptive Dysfunction
- Sensory Seeking Behaviors: Seeking out activities involving jumping, bumping or crashing as well as stomping feet while walking would fit here.
- Difficulty with “Grading Of Movement”: Child misjudges how much to flex and extend muscles during tasks/activities (i.e., putting arms into sleeves or climbing). Also May have difficulty regulating pressure when writing/drawing.
As an Occupational Therapist you are at the front line of defense for children with many different disorders. By simply understanding the signs and symptoms of proprioceptive, vestibular, and tactile dysfunction you will be able to better diagnose and treat those affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.
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