Sensory processing disorder is a state where the brain has trouble processing information collected from the senses.
Information comes in thick and fast from every sense in our body. The traditionalist will maintain that there are 5 senses, but there is argument for at least one, possibly 3 more.
Think about the many signals that the brain receives at each moment through just one sense, let’s take Touch.
What are you touching?
As you sit in your seat or stand on your commute, reading this, if you just stop a moment and consider all the things you can feel…. It’s actually pretty difficult. You are touching the seat, the table, your phone, your laptop, maybe some cushions, the air. Each one of these things has a different texture; soft, hard, smooth, coarse. Think about the texture of your socks, your clothes. Perhaps you can you feel a breeze on your skin. Are your arms resting on something, are you aware of the pressure on your skin from the weight of your arms resting?
At each moment your brain is taking these signals and processing them automatically, you in fact get so used to it that you probably haven’t even considered most of the things you are touching.
Now imagine that there is one particular texture that you can’t stand touching your skin. For me personally I really hate the cheap nylon material that so many ‘on trend’ tops are made out of. It is a dry and course texture that is un pleasant to feel. However, I can deal with touching it, I just find it unpleasant. The chances are you are able to accept a texture that you also hate
Someone with Sensory Processing Disorder cannot accept this. They despise it. To the root of their bones there is nothing worse. They can become confused or disorientated. The feeling of dislike towards this texture is so intense that they may flit into an extreme rage. Or run and hide. Or just stop moving. Reactions are as varied as the causes.
It doesn’t have to be touch, sometimes it can be one noise, a feeling or a sight that sets off a reaction sometimes it can be slight and subtle, such as scurrying off into a corner of the room, or hiding under an object. The reaction can often be severe and cause a meltdown which can be a very distressing time for both parent and child.
My child goes into meltdown over ‘nothing’ should I be worried?
In short no, all children, and adults often display these characteristics from time to time. Think about nails on a blackboard, or knifes on a plate. They are noises we just have to put a stop to, immediately.
However, Sensory Processing Disorder manifests in many different ways and you know your child best. If you are in any way concerned you should take your child to a specialist.
What can I do to help them?
You can help your child discover different textures, shapes and objects from a very early age and see if they react unnaturally to them. Forming a structured play session with a treasure basket will introduce different materials, objects and textures whilst also helping you to understand if anything might cause unwarranted distress or upset.
Treating Sensory Processing disorder
SPD is an official condition and unfortunately has had very little research conducted into it.
Occupational Therapy is widely considered to be the most effective form of treatment. There are limited studies such as that by the The Journal of Occupational Therapy (March 2007) (pdf) that identify promising proof this.
What is occupational therapy?
Occupational Therapy for Sensory processing disorder is a combination of creating the right environment and applying the correct interventions to target the effected sensory system to help the child overcome their struggle.
Toys and their place in creating the right environment
There are many techniques employed by Occupational Therapist in helping to alleviate the extreme responses solicited by over and under stimulated children.
Continuing on the sense of touch, a technique known as ‘brushing’ is used whereby a soft-bristled brush is used to apply pressure to the skin. It is apparently important to use a very particular type of brush, a plastic surgical brush, as it is believed that this applies the correct amount of stimulation to the nerves.
Light can easily lead to over or under-stimulation. It was John Ott who first discovered that plants, then also humans react differently in certain light conditions. The latter most noticeable in people with mental health disorders. Using a sensory room or setting up a sensory corner in your house with calming colours, textures and lighting. Mood block lighting that give off a gentle colour changing hue can help to create a suitable environment for your over or under-stimulated child.
Squeezing and contact
Some children feel safer and more secure when they are leaning against a wall, sat on an inflatable object or having a good hug as they feel a sense of pressure that is comforting. Inflatable balls can provide a child with something to sit on, sit under or as something to squash.
Puppets are more predictable than people. This is why children with SPD or similar conditions may be drawn to them. They are controllable and predictable. As an adult, you act vicariously through the puppet creating an environment you know will be suitable for your child. Puppets act as a surrogate communicator, which can help your child to reconnect after a melt-down.
A sensory diet is a term coined by Patricia Wilbarger that involves a continued presence of sensory task and objects in the daily life. Sensory diets are unique to every child and can only be properly created by a trained occupational therapist.
Sometimes they involve toys and sometimes they may not. The correct toys alone will not help your child to overcome any Sensory Processing Disorders that your child may have, instead you need a well-balanced set of task and objectives from an occupational therapist to aid in alleviating any conditions.
Disclaimer – This article is meant for information purposes only and no part of this deems to be professional advice. If you are in doubt about your child, then you should seek a specialist. A good place to start is with your GP.