Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sensory Processing Disorder

I often like to hop up on my soapbox and wag my finger at moms who refuse to discipline their children. Of course, sometimes when I do this readers call me on my actions. And they should.

One reader, Kimber, was kind enough to educate me on about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which her son has. She said teachers often misunderstand kids with this disorder as being badly behaved and suggested I not be so quick to judge all kids in the classroom. I was put properly back in my place after reading her e-mail and I wanted to share what she wrote because it was both enlightening and informative.

According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Web site, this disorder presents itself as early as infancy. The five signs of SPD include (click here to read them in detail, because each sign has elaborate examples and I cannot list them all):

1. Hypersensitivity to touch (tactile defensiveness). They can be over-responsive or under-responsive. Over-responsive babies do not like having their diaper changed; toddlers are fearful of other people, do not like having their hair brushed, are bothered by rough sheets, and prefer hugs to kisses. Under-responsive kids may crave touch or need to touch everything. They are self-abusive, mouth objects obsessively, hurt other children when playing, crave salty, spice, sweet or sour food. Children have difficulty with fine motor tasks such as buttoning, zipping and fastening, may be afraid of the dark, has difficulty using scissors or silverware.

2. Hypersensitivity to movement. Over-responsive kids avoid playground equipment (swings, ladders or slides), prefer sedentary tasks, appear “wimpy”, may physically cling to an adult they trust, appear terrified of falling even when there is no real risk, may have disliked being placed on tummy as an infant, and appear clumsy. Under-responsive children are in constant motion and can’t seem to sit still. They love being tossed in the air, could spin for hours and not appear dizzy, love the fast intense rides at parks, and rock their body or shake their leg while sitting.

3. Hypersensitivity to sounds (but no diagnosed hearing problem). Distracted by sounds others don’t notice, bothered by flushing toilet, runs away or cries when hearing a loud, unexpected sound. Under-registers often do not respond to verbal cues or their name being called. Loves loud television or radio, needs directions repeated or says “What?” frequently.

4. Hypersensitivity to Oral Input. Over-registers are picky eaters and will often eat with extreme food preferences. They will only eat soft or pureed food past age 2, and have difficulty sucking, chewing or swallowing. Under-registers lick, chew or taste inedible objects, drool past the teething stage, and chew on their hair, shirt or fingers.

5. Olfactory Dysfunction – hypersensitivity to sounds. Over-responsive children react negatively to smells which do not usually both others. They get nauseated by bathroom odors or personal hygiene smells and are bothered by household or cooking smells. Under-responsive kids fail to notice unpleasant odors, use smell to interact with objects and ignore unpleasant odors.

As I said, the list is much more elaborate, so if any of these signs hit home with you, please go to the Web site by clicking here.

Kimber has been dealing with her son’s diagnosis for four years. Here is a bit of what she describes her son’s life to be like:

His areas of difficulty are in touch processing, auditory processing and modulation (once his engine shifts into high gear, he can't calm down without help). He also has fine motor issues, which make handwriting difficult for him. If his clothes are bothering him, he can't sit still. He is up and down. If someone brushes up against him (especially behind him), he responds aggressively. He can't filter background noise well, and he has a hard time hearing what is important, like the teacher's instructions. As a result, he often "checks out" and worse, makes his own noises to drown out ambient sounds. Fire drills totally freak him out and will ruin his entire day. The noisy cafeteria is overwhelming and stressful to him. He sits alone in the lunchroom each day. He's not social. As his stress builds during the day, he gets wound tighter and tighter. He chews his shirt and his fingers (sometimes until they are bloody). He becomes fidgety, loud and impulsive.

He acts like a kid with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Teachers have told me he needs to be tested for Autism. They ask if he has Tourette syndrome. They often say, “I have never seen a child like this.”

As an end result, Kimber is choosing to home school her boy because she knows he is bright. She says he tested at a lower level because teachers have refused to give him challenging work.

I know people whose children exhibit signs of Sensory Processing Disorder and if you know anyone whose child has these signs, please forward this post. I think they will find some relief in having their child understood for once.

POST SCRIPT: To read an update on this post, please click here.
Photo courtesy of


KMed said...

Well done, you! Thank you for posting on SPD. It is a completely bewildering disorder - my cooperative, optimistic, cheerful son used to melt into fits of bottomless rage over the most puzzling things. Occupational therapy and accomodating his sensory needs have changed our lives!

SWE said...

A "friend" a few years back once looked at some of my daughter's sensory processing issues and decided that it was her job to convince me that she was mildly Aspbergers. After a lot of research, some soul searching and even an initial evaluation with a doc I still maintain is a quack, I realized that I needed to listen less to this "friend."

We've gone through a looooong stretch of fear of noises, misery around white noise, aversion to food textures. Sheer misery for everyone involved. Panic while riding on the freeway isn't exactly conducive to stress-free living here in CA. It also made (an admittedly ill-fitting) preschool even more difficult as my daughters attempts to avoid painful stimulus really did look for all the world like wanton disobedience.

My comment is really more that any sensory processing issue will appear HUGE in the lives of people who experience them. If it's omnipresent, everyone is going to need help learning how to deal. Our first step toward a more "normal" lifestyle was to really pay attention to what bugged our girl and then figuring out what we could do to accommodate. For example, with those loud public bathrooms we just made sure ear-covering was part of the routine. The freeway was scary, so we focused on who could see the most different colors of signs along the road. There are a lot of ways to acknowledge mild hypersensitivities that are respectful of both the child and the rest of the family.

For some unknown reason, most of my daughter's fears of loud noises went away after a week of visiting my parents last summer. Where we live now, there is constant white noise and I suspect that just getting away from that was enough to help her reset her filtering software.

If there's anything I've learned from this, it's that we all process sensory input differently. Even "normal" people. It's our job as parents to take our kids where they are and help them be their very best. Talking together on blogs like this gives me a fighting chance at being the best parent I can be. :)

RYD said...

SWE, I don't know enough about SPD but I am going to guess that with every disorder, there are variations and degrees. Perhaps your daughter has an extremely mild form, or perhaps she doesn't have any form. Only you will know for sure. But my purpose for writing this is to educate other moms and let them know they are not alone, and also to let people know they should investigate if their child does exhibit some of these symptoms. It doesn't make your child "bad" or "good;" it just gives you tools to work with. :)

Kia (good enough mama) said...

As a mom with a son who has SPD, I applaud you for helping to get the word out. I invite you and anyone else who is interested to visit my blog, which is about being a mom to my SPD boy. Thanks!

Good Enough Mama

Anonymous said...

Thank you for getting the word out about SPD, so many people do not know about it. My 7 year old has SPD, so needless to say I know all the challenges you are speaking of. We first learned that he had a problem when clothing tags and sock seams began to be an everday problem. He waged wars if the tag or seam rubbed him the wrong way. I cut out tags, had him wear undershirts and turned socks inside out, but it never seemed to really solve the problem. He's gotten better as he's gotten older, but seams and tags are still an issue.
Recently, I found a website,, that sells seamless socks. The socks are called Smartknit Kids Seamless socks and they really are seamless. These socks have been a lifesaver. We finally don't have fights with socks in the mornings. The website is

If anyone else has this problem, I hope it helps and if you have any suggestions about tags in underwear or pants, PLEASE let me know!

Christen99 said...

As a mom with a 6 year old son who was recently diagnosed with SPD...THANK YOU for getting the word out! We have been trying to figure out for 3 long years why he was behaving the way he was. We sought out several different pediatricians, developmental pediatricians, psychologists, educational consultants, and finally the OT who was assessing my older pulled me aside and urged me to have an OT assessment. We couldn't go out in public for years, because he was so out of control either into everything or bolting away. Nothing I say or do makes it better, and I can't honestly control him at times which is a. embarassing and b. heartwrenching to endure. Believe me, I would if I could! We homeschool him because he's also highly gifted, and working several years above grade level which has its own unique set of challenges, but adding on the SPD makes school virtually impossible. Most of our day involves doing OT activities at home just to make the situation livable. He has had some serious rage issues lately, and I have never experienced anything like this in my life.

Unlike the 5 red flags you posted, he is both hyper and hypo sensitive and ranges between the two at any given time. He is rarely in the middle! He doesn't feel pain like most children, and has broken his nose with little reaction. He mascerated 1/2 of his bottom lip after dental work and never required so much as a dose of tylenol. We had to consult a plastic surgeon because the wound was extremely gruesome. However, if he scrapes his knee or has a splinter I can't get near him because he's freaking out with pain. He loves to spin on swings, etc. and we have a hammock swing that our OT recommended. I have had to take it away, because at times he spins until he vomits and it doesn't bother him. He is a thrill seeker, and has always been one! He is what is referred to as a sensory seeker as opposed to a sensory avoider.

Don't always be so quick to judge. There are some bad parents out there, and parents who refuse to discipline or set limits but there are those of us who would give our left buttcheek to be able to control our kids and we spend our entire waking hours trying to do so. Our house is fairly regimented in that we don't have tv or video games, we don't feed the kids foods laced with chemicals and preservatives, and we don't indulge them in toys galore. I'm frequently complimented on our children, but I endure cold hard stares when things spiral out of control in public.

RYD said...

Hi Christen - I no longer write this blog but am glad you stumbled upon it. These SPD posts seem to be very popular and I'm so glad it helps those who kids are diagnosed with the disorder. We all suffer the cold hard stares because honestly I don't know a mom out there whose child hasn't thrown a massive temper tantrum in public. Yes, I understand your situation is worse, but trust me, I have a now 6-year-old who uses the public forum to get me as embarrassed as possible. :)

Good luck and hang in there.