Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a term used for a neurological condition that makes it difficult for the brain to receive and respond to messages from the body from the senses and turn them into appropriate motor and behavioural responses.
SPD may be associated with one or multiple senses. A child with SPD may struggle with coordination, have hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity responses to noise, clothing, lighting and may find certain environments overstimulating – making some everyday activities and tasks difficult, they may even feel impossible.
SPD in children often have other challenges such as ADHD and Autism and may experience a number of sensory difficulties.
Sensory Processing Disorder in Children: The 7 Senses
The way in which children encounter sensory processing challenges will differ from child to child and there may be several sensory processing challenges encountered at once. These challenges may be related to sound, touch, smell, taste/texture or what they see.
There are two other sensory processing areas that are recognised as sensory challenges within SPD and these are vestibular processing and proprioception.
Vestibular processing relates to difficulties with balance and the processing of information that is connected through the inner ear or the connections between the eyes and muscles of the body which need to work together. This affects functions such as walking, running, riding a bike, writing, etc.
Proprioception is how the body relates to space, other people and the environment and how the brain processes information from muscles and joints.
Within these areas a child’s sensitivity will differ and a child may be either hyposensitive or hypersensitive. Hyposensitive children tend to under-react to the sensory input which would cause them discomfort. Hypersensitive children are overly sensitive and are easily overwhelmed by sensory input impacting, for example, on sleep, and the ability to dress themselves.
Hyposensitivity in Children
A child’s ability to regulate also changes depending on the response to the sensory input. A child with a hyposensitive response may have a low registration response and is unable to connect with the sensory input and may appear disengaged or uninterested. In contrast the response may be sensation seeking and due to the lack of connection to the sensory input the child may attempt to increase the sensory input to meet their need and may then be hyperactive, and have a reduced perception of boundaries related to personal space or safety.
Things to look for if you think your child may be hyposensitive:
- Difficulty sitting still
- Often touching people (unaware of personal space)
- Loves jumping, spinning, heights (thrill seeking and less danger adverse)
- Difficulties sleeping
- Chewing on things (such as clothing)
- Personal hygiene tolerance (not aware hands or face are dirty, or that their nose is running)
Hypersensitivity in Children
Whereas a child with a hypersensitive response may be sensory sensitive which can lead to them feeling easily overwhelmed by sensory input, the overstimulation may cause them to be upset, angry, and distracted, feeling uncomfortable in loud or bright environments. In contrast they may instead respond with sensation avoidance, covering their ears, wearing gloves, or running from the loud or overstimulating environment. A child with hypersensitivity will have a heightened response to clothing and labels, be oversensitive to light, may find certain environments unbearable (such as shopping centres and busy parks) and may have difficulties with sleep.
Things to look for if you think your child may be hypersensitive:
- Oversensitive to clothing (noticing labels or material being too itchy or scratchy)
- Often describes lights are too bright or sounds too loud
- Struggles with food with strong flavours to textures which may make them gag
- Afraid to play on playground equipment such as swings
- Oversensitive to touch (a gentle touch feels too hard)
- Poor balance or difficulties with fine motor skills such as holding pencil
SPD may also impact on a child’s ability to make friends, and engage in physical play and sports. They can be easily distracted and find it difficult to sit still and when overwhelmed can have big emotional responses.
The Science Behind SPD in Children: What’s happening in the brain?
A child struggling with SPD will be spending much of their time in the primitive mind where the amygdala is in constant high alert and looking for danger, creating a heightened sense of anxiety. From their primitive brain they can only respond from the primitive parameters of anger, low mood or anxiety. This will affect their ability to cope well with challenging situations and may make it more difficult for them to ‘bounce back’ when they have navigated sensory stimuli. In their primitive mind they are less able to access their rational mind where they can make a proper assessment of the situation. This will impact their ‘stress bucket’ and will create a negative cycle of more anxious responses which in turn continues to fill the stress bucket making it more difficult to cope well.
What can help a child with SPD feel more able to cope?
Helping to empty the stress bucket will help them to spend more time in their intellectual mind and help them to cope better with sensory stimuli.
Build Self-esteem – we can help our children to build self-esteem by:
o Encouraging them to talk about their achievements (however small)
o Celebrating the steps they have taken towards their goals
o Recognising their own unique, individual strengths
o Encouraging them to take small positive actions
Identify and reduce sensory stimuli:
- Relaxation – develop a relaxation practice. There are many different apps and relaxations available for children which provide guided relaxation audios. Relaxation for your child may require fidget toys or a quiet space where they feel safe.
- Sleep – relaxation can help to improve your child’s sleep. Developing regular sleeping behaviours and routines can also support improvement in sleep. When we sleep our brain processes the worries and anxiety in our stress bucket and moves them, through REM (the dream part of our sleep cycle) into our intellectual mind where we have either forgotten about them by the time we wake, or we have been able to identify a solution.