• Lauren Butler

Sensory Processing Disorder: Exceptional Kids Deserve an Exceptional Diagnosis


When I attended my very first sensory training, I’ll admit that I was a bit hesitant; I knew nothing about sensory processing and prepared myself for what I assumed would be “just another lecture”. I felt the same vibe from everyone sitting around me. Within a few minutes of hearing the presenter begin her talk on Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), I learned just how wrong I was about the conference and what a great deficit of knowledge there is surrounding this topic. It has since become a passion of mine to not only be able to identify this disorder among my clients but also to educate those around me about it and to advocate for those diagnosed with it.


With this new spark ignited within me, I began a journey (which I am still on) to learn everything I can about SPD so that I can assist those that come to me for help. Sensory Processing Disorder is a complex disorder of the brain that affects children and adults. Neuroscientist Jean Ayre described it best by likening SPD to “a neurological traffic jam that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly”. When the brain receives information from any one of the senses, it does not know what to do with the information and leads to disorganization, confusion and ultimately, behaviors that are not considered “normal” by today’s societal standards. Recent studies indicate that between 5% and 16% of children today exhibit symptoms of SPD. There is no known cause for SPD, however it is thought that prenatal and birth complications as well as environmental factors play a role.


I use this infographic, courtesy of STAR Institute, often when explaining signs of SPD to parents. It is an important visual to provide a better understanding. Most children may have a few of the symptoms mentioned on the list, but a child dealing with SPD will have a very high number. Other signs and symptoms include a constant need to be moving, a love of crashing into things or climbing high and jumping off of things, a strong desire for firm pressure (i.e. bear hugs, climbing into tight spaces, weighted blankets, etc.), extreme difficulties during transitions, meltdowns that seem to come “out of nowhere”, an extreme love of swimming and/or being in water, a difficult time distinguishing between hot and cold, a love of spicy and/or sour food, major sleep disturbances-- practically anything that is caused by an under or over stimulation of one of the senses. These behaviors can become very overwhelming for parents and caregivers. Many seek a diagnosis for years; they go through numerous treatment providers who can’t help them, cause frustration, and sometimes even make the situation worse. Let me be the first to tell you as a parent reading this post thinking you may have found an answer-- I hear you, I see the frustration, I will do everything in my power to get you and your child the help you need.


So, with all of this information in mind, how do we treat it? I won’t lie by saying that treating SPD can be a complex process with no “one-size-fits-all” model. It is important to recognize how exceptional and unique each child with Sensory Processing Disorder is. Working with a therapist or counselor is critical to help children begin to understand what is happening to their bodies and validate their emotions and feelings. Many times, children with SPD suffer from extreme self-esteem issues because very few, if any, children around them think or feel the way they do about the world. For children with sensory issues, the world can become a very scary place, very fast. Another major component is working with an occupational therapist who has extensive sensory training to receive an official SPD diagnosis and then to come up with a sensory lifestyle plan (sometimes referred to as a “sensory diet”) to further the change process. Some of these can even be fun, too! I mean what child doesn’t want to be prescribed being flipped upside down, spinning fast in a desk chair, or swinging as a “treatment”?!


As a therapist in North Carolina, it can be difficult to see this diagnosis in children because educationally, there is such a lack of knowledge that is creating a barrier to getting children help. In the state of NC, Sensory Processing Disorder alone does not qualify a child for an IEP under the IDEA Act. Sensory Processing Disorder is also not a DSM-5 diagnosis, meaning it is not a diagnosis that insurance companies will accept for treatments. Therapists and other providers who are trained to identify SPD truly have to get creative in order to get children the help they deserve.


So, what does this mean for me as a play therapist working with your child? It means that I will not give up until all children that I serve have easy access to all of the services they need. It means that I will attend as many IEP, 504 Plan, teacher conferences, board meetings, teacher trainings, etc. that I have to in order to assure the children I help that what they are dealing with is real and those around them recognize it as well. Children with Sensory Processing Disorder are absolutely exceptional so let’s help create a society that sees them in this same light.


If you feel like your child is struggling with SPD (or any mental health issue), please reach out to Place of Peace Counseling Center at 910-777-7858 to schedule an appointment with Lauren Butler.


Sources

1. www.discoversevenstars.com/blog/traffic-jam-of-the-senses-signs-and-symptoms-of-sensory-processing-disorder/

2.(Ahn, Miller et. al., 2004; Ben-Sasoon, Carter et. al., 2009)

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