Most of us take our senses for granted.
Registering feeling, taste and smell is such an ordinary experience for most people, that it often goes unnoticed.
It’s difficult to imagine someone processing and experiencing the world differently to us.
Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD is a disorder that prevents or interrupts the brain from understanding the senses effectively.
The truth is, we’re entirely unique. We don’t experience the same sensations and reactions as anyone else.
For the majority, these differences are subtle and are completely unnoticeable in a “typical” lifestyle.
For others, tasks as mundane as waking up in the morning, eating, driving, wearing shoes and dealing with everyday life is an uphill battle.
A feeling as subtle as a wrinkle in the sheets or a change as simple as switching on a light can trigger someone with a sensory processing disorder to feel pain, stress and nausea.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD is a disorder that prevents or interrupts the brain from understanding the senses correctly.
SPD refers to clear differences in sensory integration, the process where your nervous system receives signals from the senses and makes your body react.
These signals can be referred to as sensory information.
Sensory information comes from the five senses that most of us are familiar with (taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch). We also receive information from our proprioceptive and vestibular senses.
- Taste - The taste sense receives sensory information from the tongue. When you bite into your favourite dessert, your body responds with a positive sensation.
- Smell - The nose sends sensory messages to the brain. When you smell something you don’t like, your body may react repulsed and feel irritated.
- Vision - When light hits our eyes we receive sensory information, processing movement, shapes, colours and distance.
- Hearing - Any kind of sound is a form of sensory information. This includes noises such as alarm clocks, music playing, people talking and background noises.
- Touch - Tacticle sense or touch receives sensory information from the skin. This includes texture, heat, pain, pressure, tickling etc.
- Proprioception - The hidden sixth sense that provides sensory information that allows our body to understand where it is and how we are moving. When you close your eyes, you’ll still be able to touch your shoulder. This is your proprioceptive sense at work.
- Vestibular Sense - This is the sense that controls your balance, helping your body to understand swinging, walking and spinning around in circles.
- Interoception - Sensory messages are received from our internal organs, such as internal pain, tiredness, hunger and fatigue.
When these signals are not detected or don’t get organised into appropriate responses, it creates challenges dealing with everyday tasks.
This means that someone with SPD may respond to sensory information in a way that may not be expected by others. Ultimately, this can cause clumsiness, pain, anxiety, depression and discomfort.
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Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder?
Like most illnesses, sensory processing disorder is a spectrum.
In some cases, SPD will only affect one of the senses. However, it can also affect multiple or even all of the senses at once.
Some individuals are overwhelmed by a sense, for example the sound of a leaf blower or the feeling of something touching them can trigger nausea, pain, and prompt the body to recoil.
Others are the opposite.
They may fail to respond, for example they may not respond to touching extreme heat, or the sound of voices may completely disappear in the background noise. This might cause someone to seek out sensory input in order to feel something, this can include a need for movement or pressure.
Examples of oversensitive SPD experiences
- Clothing feels itchy or uncomfortable
- Lights seem too bright
- Normal, everyday sounds seem too loud
- Some food textures make them gag
- Hates being touched
- Sleeping at night is difficult due to changes in bed sheets etc.
- Difficulty dealing with multiple senses at once and being in busy environments
Examples of under-sensitive SPD experiences
- Doesn’t recognise personal space
- Chews on things
- Can spin without getting dizzy
- Seeks squeezing or touch
- Enjoys wearing layers of clothing
- Enjoys weighted blankets
- Seek visual stimulation like bright lights
- Seeks thrilling experiences
In some cases, SPD effects the individuals motor skills. This might mean that they have trouble understanding where they are in relation to the rest of the world. In these cases, individuals may struggle to climb stairs, or pick up objects correctly.
It’s quite ordinary for us all to have symptoms of SPD from time to time, however therapists consider a diagnosis when the symptoms begin to disrupt daily life.
What Causes Sensory Processing Disorder?
Preliminary research suggests that SPD is often inherited, however birth complications and environmental factors may also be involved. The exact cause of SPD is still unknown.
This disorder is commonly associated with Autism and Asperges, which are also neurodevelopmental disorders that are attributed to a combination of genetics, birth defects and environmental factors.
Treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder
Treatment for SPD is usually provided to children in the form of occupational therapy. Over and under-stimulation does not go away; however, it is helpful to teach children techniques to process and manage sensory information.
Depending on the child's sensory needs, a specialised treatment program is developed where several leisure activities that suit their sensory needs are given. These activities often take place in a sensory-rich environment, sometimes referred to as the “Sensory Gym”.
The objective of occupational therapy is to teach children appropriate responses to sensation, in a meaningful, yet fun way. Over time, the child learns to manage and deal with sensory input in a more organised and controller manor.
Therapists may also recommend a series of activities that you can do at home. This is called a sensory diet. This might involve trampolining, cycling, completing puzzles or even something as simple as using a weighted blanket.
Nine Important Facts About SPD
- Sensory Processing Disorder is a complex disorder of the brain that affects developing children and adults.
- Clinical assessments exist to identify children with SPD.
- At least one in twenty people in the general population may be affected by SPD.
- SPD is more common in children with ADHD & Autism.
- Studies have found a significant difference between the physiology of children with SPD and children who are typically developing.
- Sensory Processing Disorder has unique sensory symptoms that are not explained by other known disorders.
- Heredity and genetics may be one cause of the disorder.
- Laboratory studies suggest that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems do not function normally for those with SPD.
- Decades of evidence suggests that occupational therapy is an effective intervention for treating the symptoms of SPD.