The senses are heightened for children living with autism.Has something ever happened to you where you just wanted to hit something or scream at the top of your lungs? Have you ever had so much energy that you just had to run it off or do something else physical so you could relax? If you can recall a few times these things have happened, that’s common. For a child or adult with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), these responses to stimuli are an everyday occurrence. If you’ve not heard of SPD, that’s not surprising. It’s often misdiagnosed and those who have it are often labeled stubborn, uncontrollable, hyperactive, withdrawn and even dangerous.

Compounding the challenges of raising a child with SPD is that they often have companion issues such as ADHD, autism, fragile X syndrome, learning disabilities and others. Children born prematurely are also more predisposed to developing SPD.

SPD can affect a child in three distinct ways:

  • Sensory Modulation Disorder – Here the child has difficulty interpreting the information his senses are providing. This can lead to his reacting in an almost outrageous manner, a lethargic or uncaring manner or a combination of the two depending upon the stimuli. Another aspect of this particular disorder is the child who is constantly seeking stimulation. These children never seem to stop moving, hitting, biting, repetitively rubbing against something, etc. For them, life is a constant seeking of sensory input.
  • Sensory Discrimination Disorder – This child may have difficulty discriminating between two distinctly different objects. This can pose a danger to a child who is unable to distinguish between an object that could be dangerous (a knife) from a benign one (a spoon).
  • Sensory-Based Motor Disorder – In this child, physical acts that we take for granted are difficult to negotiate. While sports may be the most obvious area these children struggle in, other activities such as writing, typing or other sequenced events can be places of frustration and inability.

When we’re babies, the way we learn to navigate our strange new world is through our five senses (taste, touch, vision, hearing, smell). In fact, there are fairly specific paths that we take in our development that focus on one sense more than the others, as when a child puts things in his mouth to experience it fully. For children with SPD, the sensory messages they receive are skewed causing them to behave in ways that may run counter to socially accepted norms such as hitting, biting or screaming.

Helping a child with SPD respond in more socially accepted ways includes sensory integration therapy. These children must not only learn what acceptable responses to stimuli are, they must become attuned to their bodies and express what they need in order to stay in control. Occupational therapy is a key component to teaching the child acceptable ways to self-soothe and diffuse potentially volatile situations. The good news is that parents can develop a successful “Sensory Diet” for their children, usually with the aid of a therapist. This “diet” reinforces desired behaviors consistently while supporting a child’s need for physical activities to expend energy or calming activities to help him feel safe and secure.

For example, many children with SPD respond to deep pressure. It has a calming and grounding effect. My son, Tanner, tolerates being “squished” during his therapy sessions. To do this, he lays on his stomach while his therapist, Cindy McFarland at Miriam School, leans on an exercise ball that’s sitting on top of Tanner. She rolls from his heels to his upper back while he plays with Legos® or other preferred toys. By engaging his hands and mind in an activity he chooses to do, he can more easily handle the intensity of being squished. A favorite activity for Tanner is swinging and then jumping into a pile of beanbag chairs. This exercise allows him to get the movement sensation he needs through swinging, while also gaining the deep pressure activation offered by crashing into the beanbags.

Children with SPD can lead lives that are fulfilling and happy by learning how to manage the scrambled sensory messages they receive effectively. In addition, by knowing what they need to do to short-circuit their automatic reaction (whether that’s acting out or withdrawing) reduces their stress levels and helps them stay in control.