Sensory Processing Disorder

A starkly real condition lacks recognition as a diagnosis.
Brian Mengini,
Sometimes kids with SPD experience auditory sensitivity. It may be triggered by a commotion, loud noises or just a light hum.

The sound of the kitchen faucet running sends Chester County, PA mom Lisa Lightner’s six-year old son Kevin racing from the room, crying with his hands over his ears. He struggles in public restrooms because he can’t tolerate the feel of paper towels on his hands after washing them.

Yet while these everyday sounds and textures can cause Kevin to melt down, his mother says, “He has such a high pain threshold I sometimes don’t know if I should take him to the ER. He once burned himself on our glass cooktop and didn’t even flinch.”

Kevin has trouble processing and integrating messages from his senses appropriately. The condition is sometimes referred to as sensory processing disorder (SPD), but the American Psychiatric Association declined to recognize it as a unique diagnosis in a revision of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), scheduled to be published in May, 2013.

According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, research suggests that at least one in 20 people may be affected by sensory processing disorder.


Diagnosis dilemma

Because the American Psychiatric Association has declined to recognize sensory processing disorder as a unique diagnosis in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), insurance companies will often continue to decline coverage, and research and awareness of the disorder could remain limited.

 “More evidence is needed to determine if this is a unique disorder,” says Rosann C. Schaaf, PhD of Thomas Jefferson University. Sensory processing problems are often symptoms of other disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or autism. The lack of DSM recognition can motivate parents to seek an alternative diagnosis that their insurance covers.

Dr. Schaaf explains that 70% to 90% of kids with autism also have sensory problems, though that doesn’t mean that most kids with sensory problems have autism. She says SPD may be included as a possible disorder to be explored further in the appendix when a revision of the DSM is published in May 2013.

People with SPD may over-respond or under-respond to stimuli. Scratchy tags or the feel of cuffs on a shirt can cause a child to scream and cry. Some children constantly seek sensory stimuli, and bounce, clap or spin repetitively.

Every child experiences the condition differently. Camden County, NJ mom Emily Stewart’s 3-year-old daughter Lia struggles with sensing where her body is in space, balance and motor skills.

“She has trouble using utensils,” says Stewart. “She’ll move a fork around looking for her mouth. And for the longest time, she had trouble going down steps because the sensation of her foot dangling was scary.”

According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, red flags for infants and toddlers that may indicate a sensory processing problem include resisting cuddling and having a stiff or floppy body. For preschoolers and grade schoolers, red flags include poor motor skills and over-sensitivity to touch, noises, smells and other people.

Exhibiting those behaviors does not necessarily indicate a problem, however. The difficulties must be chronic and interfere with everyday life. “A thorough assessment is needed to determine if the child has difficulty processing and integrating sensory information,” says Roseann C. Schaaf, PhD., vice chairman of the Department of Occupational Therapy at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Getting help

If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior and daily functioning, talk to your pediatrician, says Dr. Schaaf. The pediatrician will evaluate your child to determine if there is an underlying developmental disorder, explains Schaaf. Treatment can include sessions with an occupational therapist who has sensory integration experience.

“After a thorough assessment, the occupational therapist will give the child individually tailored sensory motor activities to help overcome the specific functional challenges,” says Schaaf.

Susan Stopper is a freelance writer.

Categories: Other Disabilities Research & Advice