First, let’s discuss what Sensory Processing Disorder actually is. Sensory processing occurs when the brain receives and organizes information from external sources, such as light or sound, and internal bodily cues, such as hunger or balance. Individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder do not respond to this everyday sensory information the same way most people do. They may feel bombarded or assaulted by even the smallest bit of stimulation. They might be unable to recognize extreme sensations or changes in their environment. Studies suggest as many as 1 in 20 people have sensory processing issues, and symptoms are typically much more pronounced in children.
Certain sounds, sights, smells, textures, and tastes can create a feeling of “sensory overload” for children. Bright or flickering lights, loud noises, certain textures of food, and scratchy clothing are just some of the triggers that can make kids feel overwhelmed and upset. There are two types of sensory processing challenges and many kids experience a mix of the two. One is oversensitivity (hypersensitivity). This leads to sensory avoiding — kids avoid sensory input because it’s too overwhelming. The other is undersensitivity (hyposensitivity). This causes kids to be sensory seeking — they look for more sensory stimulation.
Often, kids with sensory processing issues are oversensitive. They try to avoid sensations they find intolerable. On the other hand, some kids may seek more sensory input, not less. They may want to touch things and feel physical contact and pressure. They may have an unusually high tolerance for pain. That’s why they may prefer playing rough and not understand if they’re hurting someone. Some kids may be both sensory avoiding and sensory seeking. They may be oversensitive to some sensations, and undersensitive to others. A child’s reactions can also change from day to day, or even throughout the day, depending on the situation.
Sensory Processing Disorder is a diagnosis all of its own; however, sensory processing issues often go hand in hand with individuals who have Autism. Kids don’t have to have Autism to have sensory processing issues though. With both Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder, you may see the following signs:
- easily overwhelmed by people and places
- avoids touching people or certain textures
- has a strong reaction to texture, smells, lights
- is a picky eater or has a limited diet
- gets upset about small changes in their routine or environment
- avoids trying new things
- is constantly moving
- often squirms or fidgets
- is clumsy and uncoordinated
- invades other people’s space
It is common for people with Autism to have trouble taking in and responding to sensory information. Similarly, Autistic individuals typically have a heightened sensitivity to light, sound, touch, taste and other senses. This can also lead to sensory overload and meltdowns. Like kids with Autism, kids with sensory processing issues may experience some of the above at different times and may also experience anxiety. Both sensory processing issues and Autism can make it very difficult to learn in a traditional school environment, as well as follow rules and commands. With both Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder, there is a lot of variation from person to person. There is a wide range in intellectual and self-care abilities.
Understanding that there is not a “one size fits all” treatment plan to individuals with both Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder is key. There is no medication to “cure” Autism or Sensory Processing Disorder. However, specialized “sensory diets” can help both people with Autism and sensory processing issues. Such diets may simply include activities such as: swinging, jumping on a trampoline, pushing/pulling exercises, push ups and sliding (to name a few).
There are also more trained individuals as knowledge and awareness to both conditions becomes more widespread. Occupational Therapists, Applied Behavior Analysis Therapists, Child Psychologists and Developmental Pediatricians are all good places to start to discover what your child needs.