Sensory processing disorder By Dr. Badewa Adejugbe-Williams

There are some children who just do not sit still and/or sustain attention for long periods of time. They may be seen jumping all over furniture, covering their ears when others are talking or while the TV or music is on. They may fall down often and/or bump into objects, or refuse to play on some playground equipment. They are sensitive to some food items, clothing, light, touch, sounds, and are usually highly distracted, impulsive and/or clumsy amongst others. These are often characteristics of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Parents, caregivers, educators are often perplexed as to how to intervene. This article aims to define SPD and detail intervention strategies that are informed by Sensory Integration Therapy.

Sensory Integration, a theory developed by A. Jean Ayres, is “the neurological process that organizes sensation from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment” (Ayres, 1972, P. 11). It is also defined as “a neurological process of organizing sensory inputs for function in daily life”, that is, the brain receives information and sends signals to the rest of the body as to how to respond to the information received.
Sensory integration is a normal body process that starts developing from the womb and everyone has it. However, if hindered, it could lead to Sensory Processing Disorder. Sensory Processing Disorder, also referred to as Sensory Integration Disorder (SID), has been described as the brain’s inability to recognize, interpret, categorize, and respond “appropriately” to incoming sensory input or normal experiences. It is a neurological disorder in which the brain misinterprets the signals sent from the senses and the environment.

There are three major areas of SPD. They are sensory modulation disorder, sensory-based motor disorder and sensory discrimination disorder. Sensory modulation disorder is the inability to effectively regulate how one is influenced by several sensory inputs. Sensory-based motor disorder is a condition that affects a child’s fine and gross motor skills. Sensory discrimination disorder is when the child has a challenge recognizing and processing visual or auditory information. Some people with SPD may have only one of their senses affected while others may have combination of senses affected by SPD.

The causes of SPD are generally unknown. What is known is that there is a discrepancy in the sensory integration process of a person with SPD and environmental and genetics could be factors that contribute to SPD. Some researchers have indicated SPD could be hereditary, as a parent of a child with SPD would often have SPD his or herself. Another factor identified by researchers is environmental. SPD is common with premature babies and babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome (drug babies). Children with Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD), Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) tend to have SPD. A child with SPD or comorbid disorder such as ASD and AD/HD could display certain behaviours in response to sensory stimuli that due to taste, sight, sound, or touch as SPD is affected by the senses.

The commonly known human senses (classic senses) are tactile (touch), auditory (sound/hearing), visual (sight/seeing), gustatory (taste) and olfactory (smell). Other senses that have been identified and that are major malefactors in SPD are proprioceptive (movement of joints, ligaments and muscles), vestibular (movement and balance that involves the pull of gravity) systems. The Vestibular receptors, which are located in the inner ear, are what tell a person he or she is moving in space, even with closed eyes. If the proprioceptive and vestibular systems do not work effectively, the child would have sensory integration disorder.
Children affected by SPD may have difficulty processing and integrating information from one or more of their senses and this may cause the individual some distress, discomfort, pain, and confusion. Some children’s eyesight may be so acute that they may be able to see the “hair on a person’s head”. Some have heightened sound awareness that normal sounds may sound thunderous in their ears and may react violently to loud noise. Sensory related misconducts are often aggravated by frustrations. They may throw tantrums, hit, talk to self, and injure self and/or others. They may be seen engaging in repetitive behaviours, spinning, rocking, or flapping their arms among others. Some of these features may also change as the children get older.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), the brain’s inability to recognize, interpret, categorize, and respond “appropriately” to incoming sensory input or normal experiences causes many challenges for the children, parents, caregivers, teachers, and therapists. Some of the challenges faced by the children include coordination problems, poor attention span, lack of focus, academic challenges, challenges with motor-development, hyperactivity, challenges with self-care, lack of or low self-esteem, poor social skills, behaviour problems and oversensitivity or under sensitivity or both to stimuli. The children may be hyper or hypo sensitive to certain stimuli. A child who displays hypersensitivity is overly sensitive to stimuli whereas a child who displays hyposensitivity is under-reactive/under-responsive. These children have difficulty with self-regulation. Self-Regulation is the skill people use to master and filter their thoughts and impulses to resist temptations, distractions and habits and pause to think before taking action at any moment.

A hyporesponsive child also known as “Sensory Seekers” have difficulty responding to certain stimuli as the brain fails to register the stimuli regardless of the input. These children crave sensory stimulation and may be seen acting in ways that are dangerous and self-injurious. Example, the child may touch flame and not feel the burn or may not be bothered by loud music or would seek to be in loud environments. The child would be full of energy and be constantly moving around seeking the right stimuli and not sit still, instead, the child would move around touching or playing with objects, rocking on his/her feet, eating whatever is seen either edible or not. The child may be clumsy and often bumps into objects or walls.

Dr. Badewa T. Adejugbe-Williams (Ed.D), is an Educational Therapist and Founder of the Royal School of Educational Therapy Foundation in Abuja, FCT