Creative Child

The Misunderstood Child: Sensory Processing 101

by Sarah Lyons

A typical morning in my home begins with the words, “My clothes hurt me. They are too loose. I need new clothes.” As a result, I begin the search for the “right” clothes for my 4 year old daughter. After much time, many tears, lots of tight hugs, and a good dose of frustration, she begins her day in the same dress she wore the day prior and many days prior to that. The process of getting dressed, which seems simple to most, is the biggest challenge my child faces on a daily basis.

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This situation is one example of what living with a child with Sensory Processing Disorder is like. “Imagine being in an environment where the noise around you is amplified to the highest level, the temperature is the coldest or hottest you have ever felt, you are wearing the most uncomfortable clothing that has ever touched your skin, and you are nauseated by a repulsive smell. All at the same time. What would be your response? Most would quickly escape the situation,” says Dana Lyons, Occupational Therapist at Boulder City Hospital. “These are examples of what a child with Sensory Processing Disorder feels, but they cannot escape the symptoms. As a result, these children may respond with anger, frustration, or ultimately avoid situations which may cause a breakdown.”

Sensory Processing is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. “Everyone processes sensory input, but some people process it differently than others,” says Occupational Therapist, Carrie Grosdidier. “When the processing of this information interferes with our ability to function on a day to day basis is when we have a problem.”

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can be hard to diagnose because it affects each person differently. “Any of the five senses can be affected by being hypersensitive (over-stimulated) or by being hyposensitive (under-simulated),” says Lyons.

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A hypersensitive response to sensory input may include:

  • Distracted by noises that sound normal to others (flushing toilets, clanking silverware)
  • Fear of surprise touch or avoid hugs
  • Avoids swings and playground equipment that others enjoy
  • Has poor balance, falls often

A hyposensitive response to sensory input may include:

  • A constant need to touch people or textures
  • An extremely high tolerance to pain
  • May often harm other children and/or pets when playing, doesn’t understand own strength
  • Fidgety and unable to sit still, enjoys movement based play such as spinning, jumping, swinging etc.
  • Seems to be a “thrill seeker” and can be dangerous at times

Children can have one or many of these characteristics as well as some from each category and in varying degrees of severity. “Unfortunately, these responses are viewed by others as children behaving badly when in fact they are not,” Lyons says. “The most important thing to understand is that children with SPD are not 'bad' children. They are simply trying to survive in their own skin, in a world with heightened or lowered sensations. Typical punishment for 'bad' behavior is not optimal and can cause regression rather than progression.”

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