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For simplicity, we’ll call it Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD. SPD is a condition in which the brain has difficulty receiving and interpreting information from the senses. This can cause a range of challenges, including difficulty with social interaction, emotional regulation, motor coordination, and attention.
People with SPD may be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to different sensory stimuli, such as touch, sound, light, taste, and smell. For example, a person with SPD might find certain textures or fabrics uncomfortable, have difficulty filtering out background noise, or be easily overwhelmed by bright lights or strong smells.
SPD can occur on its own or as a part of other neurological conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or anxiety disorders. Treatment for SPD typically involves a combination of sensory integration therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral therapy tailored to the individual's specific needs and challenges.
Sensory Processing Disorder can be difficult to diagnose because it basically means that one or some or ALL of your senses are “super sensitive,” to the point of it causing pain or impacting or limiting or disrupting one’s life.
Anyone. Experts often say that children are more likely than adults to have SPD. But adults that struggle with SPD, likely have had difficulties since childhood. Because this neurological condition was not understood decades ago, adults that are being diagnosed with SPD, likely have had it their whole lives. Beyond the sensory struggles themselves, adults just coming to an understanding, likely have additional emotional psychological issues to combat since their difficulties where so misunderstood. Often, they feel wrong, flawed and simply misunderstood. While in many cases, they have developed strategies on their own to deal with or hide their sensory triggers, all of this comes into view as it’s understood that their lives have been trying to manage this on their own because in those unsupportive environments it is natural to feel shame and hiding it from those who are intolerant or would belittle, hiding ends up being a natural coping mechanism.
For an adult with SPD, it’s logical how they can face significant challenges in their daily lives due to difficulties in accurately and appropriately interpreting sensory messages. These "sensational adults" may find it difficult to perform routines and activities involved in work, close relationships, and recreation. Due to the struggles, they have experienced for most of their lives, many adults with SPD also experience depression, underachievement, and social isolation. However, with proper treatment and supportive people, many adults with SPD can learn to manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives, but there’s much more to untangle than just the specific SPD trigger.
It is not uncommon for adolescents and adults who received therapy for SPD in childhood to face new challenges when they reach new developmental levels and/or life experiences. For example, a teenager who has adapted to the challenges of high school may find that living in the more chaotic setting of a dormitory triggers new symptoms. At times like these, "booster" therapy or counseling can be helpful in providing strategies for adapting to the new situation and increasing self-understanding.
The primary goal of treatment for adults with SPD is to help them live happy and fulfilling lives by improving their understanding of their condition and providing strategies to manage their symptoms. Through direct treatment such as occupational therapy or listening therapy, adults with SPD can experience changes in the way they perceive sensation. They can also learn sensory techniques for home and identify strategies to avoid or decrease the intensity of situations that cause anxiety and depression. By understanding themselves and learning to manage their symptoms, adults with SPD can overcome the challenges they face and lead fulfilling lives.
The symptoms of SPD can vary widely depending on the individual and the specific type of sensory processing difficulty they experience. Combine that (which senses are trigger and by what specifically happens) with the totality of those senses as the relate to and effect each other, make diagnosing and treating SPD incredibly nuanced. There is “no one size fits all” treatment plan, in fact it’s pretty certain that no two people experience their SPD in the exact same way. However, when you can identify your triggers, there are commonalities for each of the parts of how each sense that is affected, and we can find support in each other by sharing our difficulties and how we have developed solutions.
SPD can affect one or more senses, and children with SPD may exhibit over- or under-reactions to sensory input, leading them to crave more intense stimuli. This may manifest as a mix of oversensitivity and under-sensitivity, leading to a range of symptoms and challenges.
Oversensitivity: Children with SPD may overreact to certain sensory inputs, such as sounds, clothing, and food textures. This can cause discomfort or distress and may lead to avoidance of certain activities or environments.
Examples of oversensitivity include:
Under sensitivity: Children with SPD may also under-react to certain sensory input, leading them to seek out more intense stimuli. This can manifest as sensory-seeking behavior, such as jumping off tall objects, swinging too high on playground equipment, or chewing on things like clothing or hands.
Mixed symptoms: Children with SPD may have a combination of oversensitivity and under sensitivity to different types of sensory input.
In addition to these symptoms, children with SPD may also have poor motor skills, such as difficulty holding a pencil or scissors, climbing stairs, or delays in language development.
These symptoms can have a significant impact on a child's daily life, including their ability to participate in school, social activities, and self-care. In some cases, SPD can also lead to low self-confidence, social isolation, and even depression.
If you suspect that your child may have SPD, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional who specializes in sensory processing disorders. A comprehensive evaluation can help identify the specific sensory challenges your child is experiencing and guide the development of an individualized treatment plan to help them overcome these challenges and thrive.
While the exact cause of SPD remains unknown, medical experts are currently exploring potential factors that may contribute to the development of this disorder.
One theory is that genetics may play a role in the development of SPD. Research suggests that SPD may run in families, suggesting a possible genetic link. Additionally, some doctors believe that there may be a connection between autism and SPD, indicating that children of parents with autism may have a higher risk of developing SPD.
It's essential to note that not all individuals with SPD have autism, and not all individuals with autism have SPD. Further research is needed to understand the relationship between these conditions fully.
Other potential factors that may contribute to the development of SPD include premature birth, low birth weight, and prenatal or postnatal complications. Environmental factors such as exposure to toxins or a traumatic event may also play a role in the onset of SPD.
While the exact cause of SPD is unknown, seeking the help of medical professionals and occupational therapists can provide children & adults with effective strategies for managing their sensory processing challenges and lead to improved quality of life.
It's important to pay attention to your behavior and note any unusual patterns. If you notice that the person is experiencing difficulties with sensory processing, such as overreacting or under reacting to sensory input, it's important to discuss this with your doctor. Having a journal or simply a list of “cause & effect” incidences is good to start as soon as possible.
This process of identifying without judgment will be important first steps to the “now what” conversation/treatment. While being diagnosed with SPD can be daunting, as much as we can bring empathy to your loved one is critical. I think everyone has some environmental experiences that they really don't like — try imagining what if that was 10x bigger and harder? Supporting a loved one that is uncovering SPD often allows them to finally be heard and understood. While you may not know the exact reason for the behavior, it's crucial to seek professional help in identifying and addressing any underlying issues.
Your doctor may refer you to an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders. The therapist will conduct a comprehensive assessment which may involve observing their behavior in various situations and asking them questions. The therapist will likely use a combination of standardized tests and clinical observations to evaluate sensory processing abilities.
During the evaluation, the therapist may ask about medical history and any developmental delays or challenges they may be experiencing. They may also inquire about behavior in various settings, including at home, school, and social situations. Based on the results of the assessment, the therapist will be able to determine if they have SPD and develop a treatment plan tailored to their specific needs.
If you suspect you or someone you know may have SPD, don't hesitate to discuss your concerns with your doctor and seek the advice of a qualified occupational therapist. With the right diagnosis and treatment, they can develop effective coping strategies to lead a more comfortable life.
Treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) usually involves therapy. Starting therapy early is crucial for managing SPD challenges.
Trained therapists lead therapy sessions to help them learn how to cope with the disorder.
Therapy sessions are customized based on whether the person is oversensitive, under-sensitive, or a combination of both.
If you are an adult starting to understand your sensory sensitivities, the resources are less than they are for children but have grown from the time I was diagnosed. As an adult with serious SPD, I have quite clear memories that go back through my life. I also notice that the things that trigger me have gotten measurably worse over time — both in reflection of triggers since childhood to ways these affect me over time now. It is frustrating because I do so many things everyday trying to fend off triggers and recover from them.. For those of us that have struggled for decades. I find it kind of insulting and dismissive that in clinical explanations, it often says it’s much more common in children, like somehow we woke up one day to have SPD. However when I tamp that with the idea with we were likely struggling our whole life. I think one of the biggest thing that found critical to my ability to find solutions was to create a supportive and compassionate support system. This can be the most difficult to “solve”, especially if the opposite already exists and resources that were not understood and therefore were unavailable to people like me, made these lifelong struggles feel that much worse. I know this because it wasn’t until I found a doctor that could diagnose me that was the ONLY way to start to come up with solutions. I think it is wonderful that children are getting that understanding. I'm even a bit jealous that they get to be loved and supported to find their way. They have a real opportunity “catch” some of these things before a whole lot of trauma and lack of support gets added into the mix! With love, support and acceptance, these children can grow up understanding not only how their body works, but has potential for a much greater understanding & acceptance of all people. To be able to gain these insights early in life can be such a gift! As opposed to deep physical, emotional psychological scarring that has to be undone before the work of understanding one’s SPD!
Personally, I think that the last few years of the pandemic, lockdown, and much uncertainty have heightened SPD in people, I know it has for me, even though I have created so many “hacks” and solutions to help all my overactive senses. I literally feel like I do about one hundred things a day to try to fend off experiencing in the first place as well as recovering from getting hit — preferably BEFORE it dominoes. Even with ALL that, it is still present and a driving force every single hour of every single day.
Here are some organizations that can be very helpful.
STAR Institute (for children & adults)
Sensory Coach (for primarily adults)
Sensory Nerds (for primarily adults)
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