by Jennifer T. Franklin, M.D.
“I’m pulling my hair out over my child’s bizarre behavior! Why are everyday things so challenging for him?!?” Have you or someone you know ever expressed this frustration? This is a common cry for help from many parents who may be raising a child with sensory processing issues, without the help of integrative family medicine. Let’s dive in to learn more about what exactly sensory processing disorder (SPD) is, how it’s diagnosed, and ways to help your child if you believe that they may be struggling with this.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
In fact, the very name is controversial among professionals to even call it a “disorder.” It’s often “unheard of” or overlooked because SPD is not included among the conditions spelled out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which is the guide used by psychiatrists and many other clinicians, including pediatricians and psychologists as well. Regardless, sensory processing challenges are a legitimate struggle for some kids.
It was first described in the 1970’s by Dr. A. Jean Ayres as the idea that certain people’s brains can’t do what most people take for granted: process all the information coming in through seven senses to provide a clear picture of what’s happening both internally and externally.
Affected children will often have difficulty handling the various input that their senses are taking in – things like sound, sight, touch, taste and smell. In addition, there are two lesser known senses that can also come into play – proprioception, or a sense of body awareness, and vestibular sense, which involves balance, movement, and coordination. For kids with SPD, it has been likened to a traffic jam in their head with different signals coming in, and their brains don’t know how to make sense of it all. Functional and integrative medicine solutions can help children sort through the different parts of this ‘traffic jam’ through fully customizable treatment plans, designed to address the unique needs from child to child.
Kids with these sensory challenges usually fall into one of two categories: hypersensitive (overly stimulated) or hyposensitive (that is, under-stimulated), and the resulting behavior is often misinterpreted. The hypersensitive kids are extremely reactive to sensory stimulation and can find it overwhelming. They can be seen as “avoiders”, “picky”, “irritable” or “oversensitive” because they actually experience such discomfort (or even pain) from certain sensory input that they react in extreme ways to get away from it. On the other hand, hyposensitive kids want to seek out moresensory stimulation. They may be categorized as “impulsive” or “hyperactive” because they are hyposensitive and are seeking sensory input. There are also kids who exhibit a combination of these with different sensory perceptions. These challenges can be really tough for kids and can inhibit their ability to learn, build relationships, and overall function effectively.
Where integrative family medicine plays a role is helping the child to understand all of the different senses they are experiencing and teach them ways to slow down the noise to focus on identifying one at a time. Once the child develops these listening and identifying skills, they can begin to pick apart the stimuli they are processing to better understand what it all means. After some time and practice, the stressful and overwhelming stimuli become easier to manage – thereby reducing stress and fatigue in both the parents and child.
What are some common signs and symptoms?
Sensory processing issues are often first recognized in toddlers with an unusual aversion to noise, light, clothing that is irritating or shoes that feel too tight. It may also manifest with gross motor abnormalities like clumsiness climbing stairs or fine motor difficulties like fastening buttons or holding a pencil.
Some children can have extreme reactions which can be quite alarming to parents and caregivers, such as:
- tantrums with getting dressed
- screaming when their faces get wet or their feet touch the grass
- crashing into walls or people
- an unusually high or low pain threshold
- an oral fixation with chewing on things incessantly, including t-shirts, toys, rocks, or even their own lips or tongue resulting in mouth sores and bleeding sometimes
- distracted by background noises that others don’t seem to hear
- fearful of surprise touch, avoid hugs and cuddling even with familiar adults
- very fidgety and unable to sit still for long periods
- not understanding their own strength
Does this mean my child has autism or some other diagnosis?
While sensory issues are seen in a majority of children on the autism spectrum, many children with sensory processing challenges are NOT on the spectrum. SPD can be seen in children with other developmental delays as well as with anxiety, OCD, and ADHD (up to 40% of ADHD kids are found to have sensory issues), however, sensory processing issues can also be seen in children who have no other diagnosis at all.
I think my child does struggle with sensory processing issues. What should I do?
First of all, don’t panic, and realize you are not alone in this struggle. You’re an amazing advocate for your child by investigating this further to help them learn coping skills, overcome challenges, and thrive in life. The initial step involves a thorough medical and developmental evaluation from a caring and experienced pediatrician, and a resulting customized integrative family medicine plan geared to fit you and your child’s needs.
Integrative Family Medicine Can Help Your Child Experiencing Sensory Processing Disorder
Here at CentreSpring MD, we are here for you and your child and ready to help guide you through these challenges through our functional and integrative family medicine practices. It’s important to first rule out any co-existing diagnoses as listed above, so we can tailor the treatment plan to best care for your child. Oftentimes, things like undiagnosed food sensitivities, sleep issues, or other lifestyle factors can result in undesired behaviors and can worsen sensory issues. We can help sort through these things in our holistic approach to caring for children.
Obviously, these kids don’t want to be “difficult” in this way, and it’s frustrating for them to handle these sensory issues in their everyday life. It’s important for parents to be understanding and empathetic. The ultimate goal is to eliminate their pain (physical, emotional, and mental), while helping the child build coping skills.
Three key questions for parents to ask themselves are:
“What sensations does my child avoid?”
“What sensations does my child actively seek?”
“What sensations help calm and reorganize my child?”
Occupational therapists and integrative family medicine practicioners who specialize in sensory processing challenges are key partners in helping parents and supporting children as they adapt and build these skills through sensory integration therapy. OT’s have many hacks to help these sensory-challenged kids, including weighted blankets, fidget toys, noise-cancelling headphones, gum chewing, movement exercises, life skills activities, therapeutic listening, etc. These tools are tailored to your child’s specific sensory needs and specifications.
While sensory processing issues can be extremely challenging for kids, as well as for their parents, caregivers, and teachers, it is something that can be mitigated with the right method and team-based approach. Stay positive and seek help today to help your child thrive and better navigate the world around them with integrative family medicine in Atlanta.