STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder

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Sensory Processing Disorder in Children and Effective Treatment

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How Our Senses Interact

March 1st, 2018

Have you ever plugged your nose while reluctantly taking medicine for a cold? By blocking your sense of smell, your sense of taste is also impacted. This is an example of how your senses work together to create the world as we know it around us. We often think about the 5 senses (touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight) as independent functions, however, research shows that they blend and intersect to give us a better understanding of our surroundings. This principle is known as multisensory integration.

An interesting study done by J.E. Lugo, R. Doti, Jocelyn Flaubert, and Walter Wittich tested these ideas through an experiment. They tested to see if an electrical impulse (a small and harmless shock) that, alone, would be undetectable, could be felt by the participant if paired with a sound. According to Psychological Science, they found that the addition of the noise allowed participants to detect the shock on the back of their calf. It stated that the results of this study suggested that “the brain not only constantly processes information received from the senses, but also acts on that information to change what is happening in the peripheral system, and thus changing what we actually detect.” Basically, this means that when your senses blend and work together, they help you improve your performance and awareness of your environment.

Research that better helps us understand this multisensory integration also helps us understand disorders that involve the dysfunction of it, like Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

For more information on this topic check out the following articles!

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

March 5th, 2018

My oldest brother would take 30 minutes to get his socks on in the morning because they had to be inside out. The seam had to be perfectly aligned with the tips of his toes once the shoe was on, otherwise the whole painstaking process had to be repeated until it felt right to him. He hated loud noises and cried frequently when overstimulated by his surroundings. At the time, doctors simply labeled him as “overdramatic” and “picky,” but it is easy to see now that it was most likely what is called “Sensory Processing Disorder.”

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD, and also commonly referred to as Sensory Integration Dysfunction) exists when the body senses information from its environment, but the brain doesn’t properly organize it, and thus resulting in what might seem like an inappropriate response. This mishap in processing can be overwhelming for the children afflicted with this disorder.

According to an article entitled, “Sensory Processing Issues Explained,” by Beth Arky, some symptoms include an unusual aversion to noise, light, shoes and clothes that are irritating, clumsiness, trouble climbing stairs, and difficulty with fine motor skills. Extreme behaviors in children include tantrums when attempting to dress them or if their faces get wet, unusually high or low pain tolerance, crashing into things, and putting inedible objects in their mouth.

There are a variety of potential causes of this disorder as proposed by Suzette Turner-Clark, but a few include genetic abnormalities, birth injuries or prematurity. SPD plays a significant role in Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD/ADHD, and Cerebral Palsy. Diagnosing this disorder can be tricky because of this role. SPD is viewed as either a subset of symptoms of the previous conditions listed, or as an independent disorder. This means that in order to be diagnosed with SPD alone, thorough testing to eliminate the other disorders must be done.

The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder states that at least 1 in 20 children’s daily life is affected by SPD.

For more information on this topic check out the following articles!

Do you have a 6th (& 7th) Sense?

March 9th, 2018

When you think about the senses, you probably think about seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling the things in your environment. There are actually many more ways that you take in and sense your surroundings, but there are two additional senses that play significant roles in how Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) manifests in a child according to “Sensory Processing Issues Explained,” by Beth Arky: proprioception and vestibular senses.

Your proprioceptive senses are essentially your spatial and self-awareness system. It helps you tell where your body is in relation to objects and helps your brain figure out how it should move within the space. The proprioceptive receptors in the body are in between the joints and in the ligaments. Thus, they help control motor functions and monitor your posture.

Vestibular senses monitor your movement. It is important in regulating your balance and coordination. This system relies on your body’s movement and the positioning of your head, as the vestibular receptors are located in the inner ear.

These two senses are coined as the “internal senses” and are often confused because of their similarities. What helps me to distinguish the two is to think about proprioception as sensing where your body is positioned (in relation to what is around you) to determine how to move and vestibular as sensing how your body is positioned to determine how to move. Both internal senses can interact to help complete the big picture of the world around you, but if not functioning properly, can result in significant impairment and distress in children with SPD.

For more information on this topic check out the following articles!

Fight or Flight?

March 11th, 2018

Personally, my “Fight or Flight” response is to freeze. I’m not quite sure what all this says about me, but the response of a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) when faced with too much sensory stimulation can tell a lot about how the disorder has manifested in the individual. If a child flees the environment, they might fall under the category of being ‘hypersensitive’ to stimulation. If a child has the tendency to gravitate toward stimulating environments, they might be classified as “hyposensitive.” These can also manifest through different behaviors if experienced directly due to challenges associated with either proprioceptive or vestibular senses (as explained in my previous post). Beth Arky explains these manifestations in her article “Sensory Processing Issues Explained.”

Hypersensitivity is an over-sensitivity to external stimuli. Those that are hypersensitive can experience an increase in awareness of their proprioception. This can result in what appears to be clumsiness. This is because they experience difficulties sensing how much pressure they’re applying. Some examples of this include ripping their paper while erasing, pinching too hard, or slamming objects according to Arky. Hypersensitivity to vestibular senses may result in a hesitancy or fear toward behaviors that involve good balance. They also appear clumsy and might avoid activities such as playing on a playground or bike-riding. These children are described as “avoiders,” and exhibit a resistance to input (such as brushing teeth or having their faces touched).

Hyposensitivity is an under-sensitivity to the sensory input from the environment. Children that are hyposensitive to their proprioceptive senses crave sensory input. It is common that they jump and crash into things, and like a firmer pressure when hugging. When hyposensitive to vestibular senses, they are typically found to be in constant motion. These children desire quick, powerful, and sometimes spinning movements and like jumping. They exhibit what are called “negative behaviors” and look to many people to be hyperactivity. This is actually because they are pursuing input, and are called “seekers.”

These two manifestations of SPD become more complicated by the fact that some children can be both hyper- and hyposensitive, as well as experience both proprioceptive and vestibular challenges. These difficulties can be translated into being called ‘picky’, ‘oversensitive’, ‘impulsive’, ‘clumsy’, or ‘immature’ according to Arky. Understanding the key signs of SPD is crucial to a proper diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

For more information on this topic check out the following articles!

Treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder

March 24th, 2018

Treatment for SPD requires interdisciplinary care. According to the article, “The Debate Over Sensory Processing” by Beth Arky, children benefit most from a “team approach” with communication “between psychiatrists, psychologists, and other professionals.” There is no medication to treat SPD like for ADHD, but therapy and practical changes to lifestyle have shown to have positive outcomes.

Suzette Turner-Clark explains the need for what is called “play therapy.” She says that children and parents’ connective bonding is disrupted in SPD and that play is a natural form of communication in children and has the ability to potentially recreate the bonding experience, which in turn promotes growth of emotional markers, thinking, problem-solving, and coping abilities. One way that Play Therapy can be implemented is through ‘Home Play.’ There are many effective ways to implement this into the home, such as: joining the child in their activities, engaging by using repetitive motions, being playfully obstructive and asking questions to encourage engagement, talking them through problem-solving strategies, and using ‘pretend play’ and visualization to develop their imaginations.

Another commonly used treatment option is occupational therapy (OT), which can commonly be found through the child’s school or through private practices. Therapist engage children in physical activities, use sensory gyms and playgrounds, and use technology to help them “become calmer and better regulated," as explained by Arky. 

A study by researchers,  Chuang and Kuo of the National University of Tainan, conducted a studying the effects of a using a video-game-style motion-sensing game as a potential method of treatment in children with SPD. They proposed that the game therapy would help children "be more engaged in physical training, in the hope that by improving their bodily-kinesthetic intelligence they can be more confident in facing various learning challenges, like social participation." The study highlighted the importance of parental involvement and consistency in these children. By "gamify-ing" therapy, it became easier to implement in daily life. They found the game resulted in significant improvement in coordination over time, especially "balance, hopping/jumping in a series of circles, and jumping jacks," and showed a lot of promise for the future of therapy gamification.

A sensory gym is a room designed to stimulate proprioceptive and vestibular senses through active play with things like trampolines, therapy balls, sand boxes, cushioned mats, and swings. They can help reinforce the therapy treatment given by the OT, apply it to the home environment, and make treatment more fun and help them become willing to participate.

Creating individualized education plans for each child’s needs has shown to produce some of the most influential results of all of the treatment options. SPD has a significant effect on school performance and by adjusting to each child’s unique needs in a consistent setting, improvement can be monitored. A study done by Lin, Min, Chou, and Lin called “Effectiveness of sensory processing strategies on activity level in inclusive preschool classrooms,” there was a noted improvement in activity levels of children. Using things such as a ball chair, wearing a weighted vest, or manipulating clay were used to “increase goal-directed play” and improve proprioception and vestibular perception in preschool children. By creating inclusive classrooms, the children were able to be monitored for effectiveness of treatment and adopt behavioral training more relevant to everyday life.

The SPD STAR Institute captures the key to treatment on their treatment site when they say, “that each and every individual is unique, with individual strengths and sensory challenges and therefore, that each person deserves an approach to intervention tailored to their needs.”

For more information on this topic check out the following articles!

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