A child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) needs professional therapy

Five-year-old Anu is at a birthday party. She stands aloof. If you look closely, you find her holding a tattered teddy bear and looking anxiously at other children having fun. She does not like being touched. These traits in her led her mother and doctors to believe that she had autism.

Six-year-old Atul loves to swing upside down at the children's park. He spends a long time on it, sometimes lying on the stomach, sometimes lying on his back and sometimes, simply whirling. Watching him doing so may make you dizzy but he is fine. At home he never sits still. He squirms, fidgets or rocks in the chair. At bed time, when his father reads a story, he prefers to stand on his head in the centre of the room. Being in that position helps him to remember every detail of the story.

These children are diagnosed by professionals and labelled as autistic, hyperactive and dyspraxic. We love to label children and while doing so, we forget that these labels get stuck on them for life — limiting our expectations and their performances. What we need to do is to make an effort to understand the underlying cause for these confusing behaviours. No doubt, a variety of developmental delays, physical impairments, medical conditions or emotional problems impact a child's behaviour but there is a significant contributing factor that is often not considered because even many doctors are not aware of this condition. This is known as Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

It is also known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction. Typically, our brains receive sensory information from our bodies and surroundings, interpret these sensation and organise our purposeful responses. We do this without conscious effort. But when the brain inefficiently processes sensory information then we may misinterpret or be unable to use this information effectively or in an adaptive way. Imagine a child who receives sensations but is unable to use that information effectively. For instance, he may have a tantrum because the tag in his shirt scratches his skin. Or he may not want to eat certain crunchy food because he cannot bear the ‘sound' it makes! Or he may shrink away from a hug because he finds the touch unbearable! This is a child whose nervous system processes things differently. The feelings of textures of things matter greatly to him. It is like everything on him is magnified in terms of how he feels things. He finds a compensatory way to cope with these confusing, unpredictable and threatening sensations. He does what he must do to survive. That is why Anu needs her “teddy bear” to calm her and regulate her outside world.

SPD is a complex problem. It may affect children's development, behaviour, learning, communication, friendship and play. It may also impede sensory related skills needed to function effectively throughout the day. It may make children overly self-protective or not self-protective enough.

When SPD gets in a child's way, Occupational Therapy is highly recommended. City based occupational Therapist, Ranjeetha Behr says that these overly sensitive children need not live on the sidelines of life any more. After a thorough assessment, the therapist plans a sensory integration programme. The child is gradually introduced to purposeful activities such as swinging, climbing, jumping, buttoning, drawing, etc. These activities help the child to take in movement and touch information in a playful, meaningful and natural way.

Signs and symptoms of SPD: Distractible, withdraws when touched, avoids certain textures, clothes, foods, fearful reaction to ordinary movement activities, playground play. Seeks out intense sensory experiences, such as body whirling, falling, and crashing into objects. Constantly on the move or may be slow to get going and then fatigue easily.