Does your child appear to over react to people and things around him or her? Do you find yourself going to great lengths to avoid places, clothes, smells, foods, textures, sudden changes, new experiences, etc. because they upset your child? These are symptoms of sensory processing disorder, a.k.a. sensory integration disorder.
Sensory processing disorder basically means that the brain is not sorting through information from the senses properly. The senses do not report accurately to the brain, or the information is not well coordinated, which results in a response that does not fit the reality of the situation. The child responds to touch, sounds, light, movement, smells, and/or tastes in a manner that doesn’t seem reasonable. We all vary in the degree to which we react to our senses; some people are more “sensitive” than others. And we all become more reactive to our senses in situations where we are stressed, anxious, fearful, etc. It is considered a disorder when the sensitivity is a problem to the extent that it interferes with the child’s daily life and well-being.
The first job of the brain is to keep a person safe; and it relies on information from the senses to identify threats to safety. When the threat is significant enough, the sympathetic nervous system might be triggered causing the person to run, fight, or freeze, often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. When safety is assured, this job of self-preservation can be maintained on the back burner (on a lower level of awareness), while the brain focuses greater attention on other tasks such as learning and socializing. If the senses do report a threat, then the brain will shift attention away from priorities like learning, and focus on responding to the threat. Children with sensory processing disorder often experience normal sensory stimulus as threatening, and are more constantly aware of threats to their safety.
If you suspect your child might have sensory processing disorder, working with a movement specialist such as an occupational therapist or physical therapist can be immensely helpful.
The nervous system is wired such that the sensory system is intricately tied to the motor system. Therefore, specific movements can be used to improve processing of sensory information so that it becomes more accurate and coordinated which will help with self-regulation, control of the body, and response to sensory stimulation.
It will also be important to educate yourself on the disorder so that you can help your child organize his or her day to limit and control factors that might be aggravating. A great book to start with is The Out of Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz. Most of the tips in my previous posts would also apply to children with sensory processing disorder, “Helping Your Child Self-Regulate,” and “Preparing for a Calm Holiday.”
Donna Drury is a physical therapist specializing in neuro developmental therapy for children with learning, behavior, or sensory challenges. She is fascinated with the elegance and power that movement has in making changes in the way the brain functions. Her goal and passion is using movements to help kids and teens reach their maximum potential in school and in life.