Does Your Child Have Sensory Processing Disorder?
How to Identify It and What to Do
When a child begins to act out or have meltdowns because of loud noises or oth- er stimuli, parents may worry that these problems will interfere with his learning and development. Such behaviors can indicate a sensory processing disorder (SPD), a condition in which the brain has difficulty interpreting information that comes through the senses. Some children with SPD are sensory seekers who crave pressure and movement, while sensory avoiders have trouble with loud noises and certain textures, tastes and odors.
Get a diagnosis
When Bensalem, PA, mom Megan Giampaolo’s son, Noah, was in kindergarten his teacher noticed SPD warning signs that included severe anxiety, lack of focus and invading his classmates’ personal boundaries. As a school counselor, Giampaolo knew that a possible first step was to take her son to the pediatrician for testing. Parents also can contact their county’s early-intervention services or their local Intermediate Unit for screen- ing, testing and home- and school-based services.
Since 2005, Kim Rehak, a behavior analyst with a Masters’ degree in clinical and counseling psychology, has owned and operated the International Institute for Behavioral Development in Red Hill, PA. She says experts look at a child’s symptoms and determine how pervasive those symptoms are. All children have quirky behavior from time to time, Rehak says. She adds, “What makes it quirky versus extreme behavior is the latter impacts the child’s day-to-day functioning.”
How to treat SPD
A common recommendation for a child diagnosed with SPD is therapy with an occupational therapist (OT). When he was 6 years old, Noah began therapy with Jennie Maher, an OT at Sensory Zone in Newtown, PA, for an hour each week. Noah also has a home OT program and takes karate classes that help his craving for sensory input and movement.
What might sensory integration therapy look like? Elaine Dougherty, OTR/L and assistant center manager for the Horsham, PA location of Theraplay, Inc., says that depends on whether the child seeks or avoids sensory stimuli. A tactile seeker might use texture bins or fabric tunnels, while an avoider would be introduced gradually to compression garments and sensations like hair brushing until she can tolerate them.
Another important step, according to Maher, is to start the child on a sensory diet at school and home. “A sensory diet provides essential activities that keeps a child’s body organized so he can function effectively,” she explains.
Says Dougherty, “If the home program/ sensory diet is completed as recommended, the child may need less time in therapy.”
Early intervention is key
Maher and other experts emphasize the importance of early intervention. “If we address these signs and symptoms early,” she says, “we can impact the child’s brain function and overall development.”
Andrea Tyszka agrees. Tyszka is an OT who manages a team of 13 OTs, physical therapists and speech-language pathologists through Functionally Able Rehab, a company that works with schools Burlington and Camden counties in New Jersey. “The first step is a proper evaluation,” she says, “and then we work as a team with the therapists, the child, the parents and other family members. We try to find a child’s sensory preferences and make sure the parents have lots of strategies in their back pockets to help the child.”
Tyszka has observed a steady increase in parents noticing the signs and symptoms of SPD and seeking treatment early on, which benefits the entire family.
“Because we got Noah help from a doctor and an OT when we did, he can now meet his own needs, like looking for a squeezy ball for sensory input,” Giampaolo says. “The key is getting help and finding treatment early on.”
Support at school
Children in public school may receive support for SPD through an Individualized Education Plan or 504 plan, depending on their diagnosis. Since SPD frequently occurs with other diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorders, schools for children with special needs often have programs in place to help children with sensory issues.
ATG Learning Academy in Warminster, PA helps children with learning disabilities, of which sensory processing can be a major component. “Children can find it difficult to play because of their sensory issues, and they have anxiety because there is so much going on in their environment,” says head of school Kathleen Smookler.
The key, explains Smookler, is for the parents and specialists to create a home and school plan for the child. “Some parents have designated a safe room — or safe corner — for the child to go to when she is feeling uncomfortable, ” Smookler notes.
At the High Road School of Delaware in Wilmington, students receive highly individualized academic programs that include OT to address their sensory processing issues. The school’s director, Steve Plantholt, explains that the OT and other therapists work with students in pull-out sessions. With guidance from the therapists, “The classroom teachers make sure the students are constantly getting exposure to the sensory input that they need,” Plantholt says.
Kristine Quinby, founder, president and CEO of the The Springtime School in Newtown, PA says that if children can be taught to overcome their sensory issues, it will improve their ability to communicate and make friendships — all keys to improved development. Her advice to parents of children with sensory processing issues: “Don’t be afraid of a diagnosis. Having a diagnosis doesn’t change who your child is, but it can greatly improve your ability to help your child reach his or her potential.”
Debra Wallace is a freelance writer.