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Diagnosing Sensory Processing Disorders

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

I am seeing more families with children who are being diagnosed with SPD “sensory processing disorders”. “Sensory integration dysfunction” was coined by occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayers more than 40 years ago. I certainly don’t remember learning about this in medical school, but maybe that was another class I just missed?

This entity has become more widely understood in the last 10 to 15 years amid more widespread recognition of children who have difficulty regulating and organizing responses to sensory input. Think about the child that is just unnerved by sirens, loud noises or crowds. There are also children who are oddly sensitive to textures, or can’t stand wearing socks, or must have tags cut out of all of their clothes. Then there are yet another group of children who crave sensory input and bang objects, spin and jump just to have intense sensory experiences. We all probably have some of these little nuances, but for some children it seems to be to the extreme.

Just as with many other things in medicine, more and more research is being done looking at sensory processing disorders. With the rapid advances in neuroscience, more data is being accumulated and studied as it relates to SPD.

There are currently three primary diagnostic groups that have been categorized within the global umbrella of SPD. These are termed sensory modulation disorder, sensory discrimination disorder, and sensory-based motor disorder. The Sensory Integration and Praxis Test (SIPT) developed by Dr. Ayres is still being utilized to diagnose SPD in children ages four to eight years. At the same time, work continues on the Sensory Processing Disorder Scale, which will provide a reliable and valid measure of subtypes within SPD. There are also several parental report questionnaires being used to gain insight into how a child with suspected sensory issues responds to sensory stimuli in their lives, and how this may affect performance in daily activities. A diagnosis of SPD is typically not made unless the condition significantly affects a child’s daily life.

If you think your child may have issues with sensory input which affects them at school, home and play, discuss this with your pediatrician. The most current research supports the use of occupational therapy as a resource to help children learn to respond to the various stimuli in their environment. This therapy is based upon theories of neural plasticity and environmental enrichment and uses enhanced sensory experiences within a safe and fun environment to help children face their challenges. Our busy world is constantly bombarded with stimuli, and for most of us our nervous system modulates and adjusts to these stimuli. But for some children these stimuli may lead to an overwhelming experience with “odd or strange” reactions and behaviors that are challenging for the child as well as for the parent to understand.

SPD, like many other disorders, is probably best treated at a younger age, before the behavioral response is ingrained and memorized. Discuss any concerns with your pediatrician and seek appropriate referrals when necessary.

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.

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One Response to “Diagnosing Sensory Processing Disorders”

  1. M Perry says:

    Are there any studies re SPD and children born prematurely? Our daughter (born 1 month early) had some sound sensitivity issues (these seemed to strongly manifest around time she was in Kindergarten). We did OT with her which seemed to help.

    I am convinced that part of the issue may be the time she spent in the NICU – talk about sensory overload!

    Are there any studies re the after- and/or long-term effects of the NICU environment on premature babies?

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