What is sensory processing disorder?

Called by a number of different names, such as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Sensory Integration Disorder (SID), and even Sensory Regulation Disorder (SRD) – this is a very common and often completely misunderstood condition that affects children.

A child with the condition will have difficulty learning, moving, relating to others and to themselves – it is without a doubt a pervasive condition. The late Dr A. Jean Ayres was responsible for researching the importance of our tactile and vestibular systems in coordinating sensory information and motor activities. Her research ultimately led to the understanding of the condition as well as the birth of Sensory Integration Therapy, which designed to correct, improve or compensate for SPD.

So what does SPD look like?

We all know a child who seems to be very over sensitive, clumsy, fidgety or just somehow ‘off-ish’. While not always, these kinds of behaviours often are symptoms that a child may have SPD.

It is commonly accepted that we experience life through our five senses of smell, touch, taste, hearing and sight. There are however another two senses that are lesser known and that is our vestibular sense and our proprioceptive sense (or our sense of movement and our sense of pressure on our bodies). For most people, the information coming from these senses helps them to make literal ‘sense’ of their world, learning and adapting their behaviour accordingly.

A child with SPD receives these messages in jumbled, uncoordinated, unregulated ways. Sometimes the world seems to be ‘screaming’ at them or sometimes they feel as though they are trying to experience the world through a ‘bubble’ where everything seems to be dull. These jumbled messages prevent many children from experiencing life and learning from it in the fullest way – resulting in frustration and aggression, or timid and shy behaviour, learning disabilities or any number of other manifestations.

According to Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of The Out-of-Sync Child, SPD is “the inability to use information received through the senses in order to function smoothly in daily life.” She goes on to add that SPD is not a single specific disorder, such as blindness or deafness, but rather an umbrella term used to describe a variety of neurological challenges.

How learning happens for all children

“Learning” is very broad term, and Carol explains that there are roughly three important kinds of learning. Firstly, there is the most obvious kind, which is academic learning. This is a child’s ability to acquire conceptual skills such as reading, computing and applying what they learned yesterday to life today.

The second, lesser-known, kind is motor learning, which is a child’s ability to do increasingly more complex physical tasks after mastering simpler ones. An example is the ability to use a pencil after first mastering the use of a crayon, or learning to catch a ball after learning how to throw one.

The last and least thought-about kind of learning is adaptive behaviour. It includes a child’s ability to change their behaviour in response to new circumstances. The behaviour is goal directed and purposeful and an example could be learning to use a stick to reach an out-of-the-way ball, instead of waiting for someone else to get it for them.

All three of these kinds of learning are very important and all three are affected to a certain extent by SPD.

Finding Help

There are different kinds of SPD and they each deal with which specific sensory messages are becoming jumbled. A qualified Occupational Therapist with Sensory Integration Training will be able to assess a child’s unique challenges and work out a program to help them.

One thing to remember is that any child can be affected by SPD and that it is a challenge that can be resolved through working with the child and a therapist. Leaving a child to deal with SPD on their own can negatively affect their ability to learn for the rest of their life, it is unnecessary in our world today.

For more help, visit the following websites:
The Occupational Therapy Association of South Africa (OTASA) or the South African Institute for Sensory Integration (SAISI).

Does your child have SPD? How has your family dealt with it?

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