What Is SPD?

Sensory processing (originally called "sensory integration dysfunction" or SID) refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Our brain takes in sensory input and interprets this input for functional use. Whether you are taking a bite of food, climbing a slide at the playground, reading a book, writing a note, walking in a line, or playing a board game with a peer, completion of the activity requires accurate processing of sensation. Sensory integration is a normal, neurological developmental process which begins in the womb and continues throughout one’s life. Typical sensory processing produces a productive, normal, and “adaptive response” that happens as our neurological system takes in sensory information. The brain organizes the information and allows the body to use it within the given environment to achieve purposeful and goal-directed motor actions. Sensory information is received via sights, sounds, touch, taste, smells and movement. When difficulty with interpreting sensory input occurs, impaired daily functioning happens.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), exists when sensory signals are either not detected or don't get organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist, educational psychologist, and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, likened SPD to a neurological "traffic jam" that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, and challenges in school with learning and socializing with peers as well as , and strain on family relationships. When children’s central nervous systems are ineffective at processing sensory information, they have a hard time functioning at everyday life. These deficits impact how they move, how they behave, and how they play and interact with their peers and others. These deficits also impact how they feel about themselves.

One study (Ahn, Miller, Milberger, McIntosh, 2004) shows that at least 1 in 20 children’s daily life is affected by SPD. Another research study by Alice Carter and colleagues who are members of the Sensory Processing Disorder Scientific Work Group (Ben-Sasson, Carter, Briggs-Gowen, 2009) suggests that 1 in every 6 children experiences sensory symptoms that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life functions.

Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder, like those of most disorders, occur within a broad spectrum of severity. While most of us have occasional difficulties processing sensory information, for children, adolescents, and adults with SPD, these difficulties are chronic, and they can significantly disrupt everyday life.

Stanley Greenspan, author of "The Challenging Child" (1995) provides a useful illustration in helping us understand what it feels like to have a sensory processing disorder. He explains, "Imagine driving a car that isn't working well. When you step on the gas the car sometimes lurches forward and sometimes doesn't respond. When you blow the horn it sounds blaring. The brakes sometimes slow the car, but not always. The blinkers work occasionally, the steering is erratic, and the speedometer is inaccurate. You are engaged in a constant struggle to keep the car on the road, and it is difficult to concentrate on anything else." This metaphor can help people without sensory processing difficulties understand the daily challenges of those who do.

Children with sensory processing difficulties may be oversensitive or under sensitive to touch, movement, sights, smells and sounds. Also, they may have difficulty with body awareness and knowing where their body is in space. They often appear clumsy or awkward and may struggle coordinating motor tasks as well as regulating and organizing their behavior.

We all have sensory preferences and it only becomes a disorder when it significantly impacts one or more areas of a child's daily life. The great news is that sensory integration activities are unbelievably fun! They are a necessary part of development for any child, whether they have a sensory processing disorder or not. Nearly all play addresses one or more areas of sensory processing and the possibilities are endless.