Parent Pathways

For some people, it’s sensory overload

April 23, 2013 

We all have things that drive us a little crazy. My husband hates the feel of sand on his body. Another friend can’t stand wearing turtlenecks. My son doesn’t like really loud noises.

Most people adapt, and life goes on.

But some children and adults have sensory processing disorders, which occur when the nervous system has trouble interpreting the sensory information that it receives either from the outside world or from inside the body.

“We are constantly taking in sensory information from all the sensory systems and, ideally, our nervous system organizes it for us in a manner that helps us understand our environment,” said Kelly Council, senior occupational therapist at Developmental Therapy Associates in Cary, which specializes in SPDs.

“For instance, if you’re sitting in a chair reading something, you are getting sensory messages about sitting in the chair – your feet on the floor, the clothing on your body, any background noises or smells,” Council said. “You filter out any unnecessary sensory information so that you can focus on what you’re reading. If you’re consistently bothered by certain sensations, such as clothing on your body or a sound, then it makes it difficult to focus. This can be a sign of SPD.”

For most of us, doing everyday things like reading, eating or getting dressed is automatic. Our bodies and brains adjust quickly to what we want them to do. But for people with SPDs, everyday activities can be an exhaustive battle.

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and it’s estimated that more than 75 percent of kids with autism have significant symptoms of SPD, according to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation.

But the reverse is not true. Most kids with SPD do not have a disorder on the autism spectrum.

Diagnosing an SPD is complicated because it can be intermingled with other disorders – autism, anxiety, attention deficit disorder. There are three different subtypes of SPD, but they aren’t recognized in the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which insurance companies often use as a guide for determining coverage.

Treating SPDs can make a huge difference in three key areas: behavior, academics and social adaptability. Treatment is largely play-based.

“We have a variety of equipment – lofts, trampolines, large floor pillows, tire and platform swings – which help to provide sensory input to children through the tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive systems as well as the auditory and visual systems,” Council said.

The play focuses on problem areas and teaches skills that help a child’s nervous system take in sensory input and organize it for behavioral and motor responses, achieving a “just right” response.

The good news is that SPDs can be fixed or managed.

“The therapist sets up the clinic for a ‘just right’ challenge to allow the child to successfully experience sensory input and motor challenges,” Council said. “As kids grow older they have access to higher-level skills so they can cope better. It’s helpful to have a name for what they are dealing with and to have an understanding so they can use strategies to help manage sensory input.”

So the exhaustive battle of everyday activities becomes more automatic and kids and adults alike can focus on the bigger experiences of life.

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