Everyone absorbs and processes information about their surroundings in their own way. Some children have difficulty interpreting their environment and responding to it in daily life. This neurological condition is known as sensory processing disorder.
Children affected by sensory processing disorder (SPD) are affected in one or more of the five senses, including hearing, touch, smell, sight and taste. The world can be an unbearable source of stimuli to children who have SPD. The sensation of clothing, physical contact, light, sound, food and other forms of stimulation can overload or distort their senses, causing difficulties such as:
- Following necessary routines like brushing teeth, getting a haircut or going to school or to the grocery
- Being accident prone or having other problems with motor skills
- Responding too much or too little to heat, cold or pain
- Working or playing with others
- Difficulty eating foods with certain textures, tastes, or smells, resulting in a very limited diet
The vestibular system is not one of the five senses, but it is a basic part of daily life and it is often involved in SPD. Poor vestibular processing can cause many symptoms such as:
- Craving or avoiding certain activities
- Becoming dizzy or motion sick
- Engaging in risky behaviors with a lack of awareness of their danger
- Being completely still or constantly moving
Left untreated, SPD can be debilitating for some children. They may struggle in school, be socially isolated and misunderstood by others. Children with SPD are often misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which prevents them from getting the right kind of treatment.
Diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder
The causes of SPD are not yet clearly understood. Some researchers believe SPD originates genetically. In fact, through a child’s diagnosis, some parents recall that they had similar sensitivities themselves as children, suggesting that the genetic link is likely.
Others think prenatal and birth conditions or environmental factors are to blame. SPD can also occur after nerves are damaged by a brain or spinal cord injury.
Accurate diagnosis and early treatment can help children function in the world with fewer adverse effects from SPD. Parents can enlist occupational therapists with advanced diagnostic skills to evaluate and treat a child with sensory processing needs.
At Riley at IU Health, occupational therapists rely on several techniques to help treat children who have SPD. As the person closest to your child, you are best acquainted with the circumstances that trigger a response. Parents and caregivers can provide valuable insight about their child’s behavior to aid appropriate treatments. We ask you to complete a questionnaire that helps us get to know your child better.
Our occupational therapists work as part of a multidisciplinary team to evaluate children for SPD. Other pediatric specialists may evaluate your child’s physical and psychological health, as well as speech, language and social abilities. Our goal is to get the broadest possible view of your child, so we can help them participate fully in life and interact successfully with their environment.
Although an evaluation may involve standardized tests, interviews with parents and clinical observation is the best way for us to evaluate a child’s difficulties with SPD. We combine all these strategies to assess each child’s sensory systems. When we have a good understanding of your child’s unique sensitivities, we can work with you to develop a treatment plan based on his/her needs.
Occupational therapy may never completely resolve the underlying issues that cause SPD. It can, however, help children adapt to the world and have appropriate skills for learning, socializing and functioning successfully. Many children have sensitivities that have no impact on their activities of daily living. In occupational therapy, we only work on those areas where SPD limits them. Occupational therapy may only be one part of a child’s overall treatment plan.
Treatments are customized to each child’s sensitivity and may involve many techniques. Here are a few examples:
- Some children benefit from tactile activities that help them interact with different textures.
- We may also introduce them to different foods to help them learn to tolerate textures and resolve issues that affect their eating habits and nutrition.
- For children affected by sound sensitivity, we can often fine-tune their auditory systems to tolerate noise through specialized listening programs.
- Swings and slides may help children whose disorders involve their vestibular system.
- Compression garments and weighted vests may give children proprioceptive input—an awareness of sensations that come from the bones, muscles and joints in the body. These therapeutic aids may calm some children or help them develop body awareness and a sense of their own position.
Most often, each child has the same occupational therapist for treatment of SPD. This consistency allows us to build a better connection to your family and understand how the condition affects everyone. We can bring this knowledge to the suggestions we make for your use at home. Some trial and error may be necessary until we find techniques that work best. Through each child’s occupational therapy, we serve as a supportive resource for parents and caregivers as they help their child make progress.
Key Points to Remember
Key Points to Remember
- SPD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a child’s ability to process information about the world through the five senses.
- Every child who is diagnosed with SPD will have a unique set of treatment needs based on the way he or she processes information.
- Occupational therapy does not always solve underlying issues that cause SPD, but it can help children function better.
- SPD may be linked to genetics, environment or a brain or spinal cord injury that damages nerves.
- Occupational therapists support parents and caregivers with techniques they can use at home to help their children manage SPD.
Support Services & Resources
Support Services & Resources
Riley at IU Health offers a broad range of supportive services to make life better for families who choose us for their children's care.
This foundation is a leader in research, education and public awareness about SPD.
The American Academy of Pediatrics supports pediatricians and offers information for parents on a wide range of health topics through this website.
This organization supports occupational therapists and shares public information and tips for parents and caregivers about training children for activities of daily living.