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Sensory Processing Disorder

What is sensory processing disorder?

Children with sensory processing disorder have difficulty processing information from the senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing) and responding appropriately to that information. These children typically have one or more senses that either over- or underreact to stimulation. Sensory processing disorder can cause problems with a child's development and behavior.

Who has sensory processing disorder?

Children with autism and other developmental disabilities often have sensory processing disorder. But sensory processing disorder can also be associated with premature birth, brain injury, learning disorders, and other conditions.

What causes sensory processing disorder?

The exact cause of sensory processing disorder is not known. It is commonly seen in people with autism, Asperger's syndrome , and other developmental disabilities. Most research suggests that people with autism have irregular brain function. More study is needed to determine the cause of these irregularities, but current research indicates they may be inherited.

What are the symptoms?

Children with sensory processing disorder cannot properly process sensory stimulation from the outside world. Your child may:

  • Either be in constant motion or fatigue easily or go back and forth between the two.
  • Withdraw when touched.
  • Refuse to eat certain foods because of how the foods feel when chewed.
  • Be oversensitive to odors.
  • Be hypersensitive to certain fabrics and only wear clothes that are soft or that they find pleasing.
  • Dislike getting his or her hands dirty.
  • Be uncomfortable with some movements, such as swinging, sliding, or going down ramps or other inclines. Your young child may have trouble learning to climb, go down stairs, or ride an escalator.
  • Have difficulty calming himself or herself after exercise or after becoming upset.
  • Jump, swing, and spin excessively.
  • Appear clumsy, trip easily, or have poor balance.
  • Have odd posture.
  • Have difficulty handling small objects such as buttons or snaps.
  • Be overly sensitive to sound. Vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, hair dryers, leaf blowers, or sirens may be upsetting.
  • Lack creativity and variety in play. For instance, your child may play with the same toys in the same manner over and over or prefer only to watch TV or videos.

How is sensory processing disorder diagnosed?

A health professional, often an occupational or physical therapist, will evaluate your child by observing his or her responses to sensory stimulation, posture, balance, coordination, and eye movements. While many children have a few of the symptoms described above, your health professional will look for a pattern of behavior when diagnosing sensory processing disorder.

How is it treated?

Sensory integration therapy, usually conducted by an occupational or physical therapist, is often recommended for children who have sensory processing disorder. It focuses on activities that challenge the child with sensory input. The therapist then helps the child respond appropriately to this sensory stimulus.

Therapy might include applying deep touch pressure to a child's skin with the goal of allowing him or her to become more used to and process being touched. Also, play such as tug-of-war or with heavy objects, such as a medicine ball, can help increase a child's awareness of her or his own body in space and how it relates to other people.

Although it has not been widely studied, many therapists have found that sensory integration therapy improves problem behaviors.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Fred Volkmar, MD - Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Last Revised April 3, 2012

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