Exploring the Symptoms and Consequences of Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition that affects how a person perceives and processes external stimuli, like sights, sounds, smells and physical sensations.

Key takeaways:

What is sensory processing disorder?

Some people with sensory processing disorder (SPD) have a lower threshold of tolerance for stimuli, meaning they can quickly become overwhelmed in situations that someone without SPD might be able to tolerate more easily. As a result, people with SPD may have an extreme aversion to loud noises, bright lights, or certain textures or smells. In other cases, someone with SPD might have a higher threshold than the average person, which can lead them to seek out higher levels of stimulation.

SPD is sometimes thought of as a condition that only occurs in children, but in reality, it can have an impact on people of all ages. Some studies have reported the prevalence of SPD as high as 5% to 15% of the population, with rates being much higher among people who also have other conditions, such as autism, ADHD, and anxiety disorders.

Signs and symptoms of SPD

The specific signs and symptoms of SPD can vary greatly by age. The symptoms of SPD in young children include the following:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Aversion to grooming activities or specific clothing (e.g., clothing with tags)
  • Temper tantrums
  • Squinting or rubbing eyes
  • Aversion to certain food textures
  • Angry or other strong reactions to loud noises
  • Clumsiness or poor balance
  • Rocking or other self-stimulation
  • Headbanging
  • Poor sleep quality

Adults, on the other hand, can display the following signs of SPD:

  • Aversion to specific stimuli, strong smells or particular fabrics
  • Avoidance of physical contact
  • Strong reactions to loud noises or music
  • Poor balance or clumsiness
  • Feeling overwhelmed in large crowds
  • Poor sleep quality

How does SPD affect daily life?

Although it is a very manageable condition, SPD can have an impact on daily life in a variety of ways. This may vary depending on a person’s specific sensory sensitivities, the severity of their symptoms, and the impacts of any other conditions that they might have.

Here are some examples of how SPD can have an influence on different aspects of daily life.

Social interactions

SPD can affect an individual's ability to process and respond to social cues, such as facial expressions and tone of voice, which can make it difficult to establish and maintain relationships. SPD can also make social interactions more overwhelming, which can lead one to avoid interacting with others.

Motor coordination

SPD can influence an individual's ability to coordinate movements and maintain balance, which can affect participation in sports and other physical activities.

Emotional regulation

When someone with SPD becomes overwhelmed or overstimulated, they may have a harder time regulating their emotions. This can lead to mood swings and difficulties interacting with others.

Attention and concentration

SPD can make it harder to focus on tasks and filter out distracting sensory stimuli, which can affect academic and work performance.

Sleep

Many children and adults with SPD suffer from poor quality sleep, which can affect overall health and well-being.

Eating

SPD can affect an individual's ability to tolerate certain textures, tastes, and smells of food. This can make it harder to find food or eat a wide variety of foods.

It's important to note that not every person with SPD will experience all of these difficulties, and that the specific impact of SPD will vary depending on their specific sensory sensitivities and coping strategies. However, in general, SPD can affect many aspects of daily life, and it's essential to seek out appropriate treatment and support to manage the disorder.

What causes SPD?

While there are many theories, experts still don’t know what causes SPD. However, research has identified several factors that may contribute to SPD. There is likely a strong genetic component in the development of SPD. Some studies have found a higher incidence of SPD among family members of those with SPD or other sensory sensitivities.

Researchers have also identified a strong neurological component to SPD. For people with SPD, there may be differences in the way that different areas of the brain communicate and integrate sensory information, leading to difficulties in processing and responding to sensory stimuli.

How is SPD diagnosed?

Unlike some other conditions, there is no single test or diagnostic measure used to diagnose SPD. Some experts believe that SPD isn’t a distinct condition from other conditions that involve sensory difficulties, like ADHD and autism. SPD also isn’t recognized as a stand-alone disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Still, some research has found neurological distinctions between children with SPD and children with autism.

Given this ongoing debate, researchers, and healthcare professionals have yet to agree on clear diagnostic criteria for SPD. As a first step, most medical professionals would seek to rule out other potential causes for the patient’s symptoms, like autism, ADHD, or another medical condition. From there, a doctor or psychologist may make additional assessments of the patient’s functioning, symptoms, and needs. They might also make recommendations for treatment or accommodation that can ease symptoms.

How is SPD treated?

SPD is typically treated with a combination of sensory-based therapies and other interventions that are designed to help the individual regulate their sensory processing and improve their daily functioning.

Specific treatments and accommodations may vary depending on the nature and severity of SPD symptoms, but some common treatments include:

  • Occupational therapy. Occupational therapists can help people with SPD develop sensory processing and motor skills.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help people with SPD develop coping strategies and improve their emotional regulation.
  • Environmental accommodations. Modifying the person’s environment can help reduce sensory triggers and improve their ability to process sensory information.


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