Children with Sensory Perception Disorder have trouble responding to sensory information and are often misdiagnosed.

Unlike most of us, three-year-old Rohit never cries or flinches when he gets an injection or hurts himself. Rohit feels no pain. On the other hand, five-year-old Parmesh, an active and intelligent child, loves going to school, enjoys playing with other kids and eagerly participates in class activities. But when music is played, Parmesh covers his ears with his hands. Neither his parents nor his teachers understood why.

Similarly, some children are averse to being touched. Some may even be averse to certain colours, light or certain objects. A child may, for instance, be averse to clothes with collars or may become tense when entering a colorfully lit room. Some children are extremely averse to fragrant smells.

These children, who are otherwise very intelligent, are unusually sensitive to the sense of touch, smell, sound, taste or even sight. Such children are possibly affected by a sensory disorder. This means the child may be having difficulty understanding and responding to information from one or more of their senses (eyes, ears, nose, touch, and even their sense of balance, movement and physical pressure).

When we touch, smell, see, hear or taste something, the nervous system conveys the stimuli to the brain, to process the signals and interpret them appropriately. The way our brain relates to the stimulus (sensitivity) decides how we react/respond (behaviour). In some people, the nervous system has a problem (best described as a traffic jam) and is not able to convey the signals received from the senses to the brain. This inability is called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Children with SPD therefore exhibit abnormal behaviour when they touch, hear, see, taste or smell something.

Hyper-or Hypo-sensitive

When children or even adults have SPD specific to one or more senses, they may be either hypersensitive (over-sensitive) or even hyposensitive (under-sensitive). Either way, they are ‘out-of-sync'. Hypersensitivity is characterised by behaviours such as being irritable, unwillingness or complete intolerance in doing normal things such as wearing clothing, aversion to light, dislike being touched or intolerance for certain sounds like Parmesh. Hyposensitivity, on the other hand, is characterised by an unusual need for extra stimulus of the senses than what is normal like Rohit.

‘Out-of-sync' child

Often, an ‘out-of-sync' child is diagnosed with a behaviour problem. Merely addressing the behaviour without understanding the underlying reason can be traumatic for both the child and those around him.

An ‘out-of-sync child' with SPD may be tense, uncooperative or depressed. Some, on the other hand, will be overexcited. This is because the child is trying to cope with his daily environment in his own way.

Some unusual behaviors seen in children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Learning Disability (LD) are often due to SPD but fail to be identified as such.

It is important to identify if a child's unusual behavior is due to SPD or any other disorder as the treatment for the various disorders are different.While SPD requires Occupational Therapy applied to the affected senses in ADHD/ASD/LD itself, a behavior triggered by sensory discomfort will be addressed through Sensory Integration Therapy. If the behavior is triggered by other factors, it will be addressed through behavior modification.

Therefore, it is very important for parents, teachers, therapists and paediatricians to look further, understand and identify if the child's behaviour is due to a sensory disorder and take the appropriate steps to treat the disorder.

Help is available

The out-of-sync child can grow into a self-regulating, functioning adult if he/she receives the right understanding, support and early intervention treatment. Early intervention involves treatments that enhance development in the right track and helps the child cope with his disorder in relation to his environment. Most children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are just as intelligent as their peers. Many are intellectually gifted. They need to be taught in ways that are adapted to how they process information and they need activities that suit their own sensory processing needs.

Once children with SPD have been identified, they benefit from a treatment programme of Sensory Integration Therapy run by trained Occupational Therapists. Treatment helps the child process all the senses in an organised manner so that they can make sense of the world around them and respond or react in a socially acceptable manner. When the child actively engages in meaningful activities that provide the intensity, duration and quality of sensation his central nervous system craves, his adaptive behaviour improves. Adaptive behaviour leads to better sensory processing. As a result, perceptions, learning, competence, and self-confidence improve.With treatment, the child can become as competent as possible: physically, academically and emotionally.

Importance of early intervention

Young children respond well to early intervention, because their development is still maleable. As children grow, their brains become less malleable and their unusual reactions to sensations become more established. Yet, older children and even adults can benefit from therapy.It is never too late to seek help.

The writer is Director, Therapy Services,FiVE: Centre for Child Development, Chennai. E-mail: sowmya@childsupport.in

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012