By Siobhan E. Brown
Children who have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) often go undiagnosed because the behavior they exhibit can mimic that of children who are progressing through the developmental stages normally. Is the child who yells and throws his shoes, merely trying to get the attention of his teacher or is their environment causing them physical and emotional discomfort and the situation requires deeper examination?
What is a Sensory Meltdown?
With tantrums often there is a very clear trigger prior to the intense emotional episode. Whether the coveted thing is a toy, candy or a parent’s attention, the end result of a tantrum often looks the same. Once the child receives the desired item or attention, the fit often ends as quickly as it began. In some cases however, we are looking at something entirely different. Children who suffer from Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), are reacting to stimuli they are unable to or having difficulty processing, causing them to feel overwhelmed. Loud noises, crowds, heat, itchy fabrics etc., can all cause the child with SPD intense emotional distress causing an outburst that may leave caregivers mystified as there is no obvious or identifiable trigger.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) ?
When there is too much input, the child becomes overwhelmed, and an appropriate reaction becomes less likely. “Sensory Processing/Integration refers to how a child uses the information provided by all the sensations coming from within the body and from the external environment. When a child is defined as “highly sensitive” he/she is considered within the umbrella of Sensory Processing Disorder i.e. Seekers, Avoiders, Sensitivity and Registration.” says Regina Nicolas, Physical Therapist and Sensory Integration Specialist with the Essential Learning Group. Perhaps the child with SPD spent too long in a bright or crowded supermarket, or became distraught when looking at too many clothes choices in their closet. The outside world suddenly becomes overwhelming as the child’s senses struggle to keep up with the stimuli they see and feel.
How Can We Help?
Many children are able to process stimuli appropriately and without any additional support they can function without visible challenges within their home and school environments. “All children go through a stage of Sensory Processing, between ages of 4-9, and most children are typical enough to go through that stage without any hindrance on their daily tasks. They form coping strategies to regulate their sensory needs” says Nicolas.
For some children however, it’s not that simple. Often without warning, caregivers and parents are caught completely off guard by their SPD child’s behavior and without the proper tools, education or resources, caregivers may unknowingly respond in a manner that exasperates the situation. If we know what is causing their reactions than we can help manage the emotions and/or ideally avoid the triggers altogether. “You and your child’s teacher can discuss changes you can make to help them be more comfortable at class times, secure and able to focus in the classroom. Such as: eliminate buzzing and flickering, fluorescent lighting, make sure he’s not sitting next to distracting sources of noise or provide him with sensory breaks” says Mireia Nadal, Psychologist with MyTherapist, an organization offering a diverse range of holistic programs and services to supports children and families.
Once triggers are identified it becomes much easier to help a child with SPD, even in the home. This might mean clearing away the clutter in a child’s bedroom, or cleaning out the closet to provide children with minimal choices. For some SPD children, clothing without zippers or buttons or softer second hand clothes, may all help to minimize irritation. Some children do better when noises are minimized, such as background tv or radio. Reducing trips to noisy, crowded or bright places may also benefit the child with SPD who functions better outside of malls and supermarkets. Each individual is different and it is best to learn through observation, how best to support a child with SPD.
Unlike other childhood disorders such as Autism or Attention Deficit Disorder, there is no medication a doctor can prescribe. There is hope however, and a variety of professionals who can help. “Occupational therapists (or OT’s) are the specialists who work with kids who have sensory issues. The OT’s work in schools, though you can also find them in private practice. They engage kids in physical activities that are designed to regulate their sensory input. The goal of Occupational Therapy is to encourage appropriate responses to a sensation in an active, meaningful, and in a fun way so the child is able to behave in a more functional manner” says Nadal.
Long Term Outlook:
Many children may grow out of Sensory Processing Disorder on their own, able to lead perfectly normal lives in adulthood. For those who require a little more support, environmental adjustments, professional support and additional therapies will do wonders for the child diagnosed with SPD. Particular attention should be paid to the learning environment and educators and parents can work together on this.
There are also therapists who specialize in working with children who have SPD. Occupational therapists are not only valuable when it comes to treating issues related to injury and aging, but are now more commonly found working in schools, assisting educators and supporting children faced with unique challenges.
When asked her opinion Nadal concludes, “Over time, the appropriate responses generalize to the environment including home, school, and the larger community. Effective occupational therapy helps children with SPD to take part in the normal activities of childhood, such as playing with friends, enjoying school, eating, dressing and sleeping.”
Warning Signs/Cues according to Regina Nicolas, Essential Learning Group (ELG)
- Fidgets all the time
- Sensitive to sound
- Sensitive to washing hands
- Likes to look at twirling objects
- Very picker eater
- Cannot sleep at night
- Lack of focus
Essential Learning Group
Regina Nicolas Schaufelberger
Physical Therapist and Sensory Integration Specialist
Holistic Programs and Services
135 6435 4075
Photo credit: The Essential Learning group, www.chinaelg.com