Joe is a charming, fun-loving and super-smart six year old with whom my children love to play. Imagine my surprise then when his mother, Rebecca, told me that Joe was previously perceived to be an uncontrollable, unhappy and overpowering tantrum-thrower who was often excluded from playdates.
Rebecca explains that Joe has sensory processing disorder (SPD), a condition that significantly impedes the daily lives of 16 per cent of all schoolchildren, according to a 2009 study by the Sensory Processing Disorder Scientific Work Group, a group made up of research scientists in the US.
What is SPD?
Virginia Spielmann, occupational therapist and clinical director of SPOT HK Children’s Interdisciplinary Therapy Centre, speaks passionately about the vital role that sensory processing plays in our lives. She explains, “Every waking moment we are processing vast amounts of information: externally from the environment, and internally from within our own bodies. Every sound, smell, touch and visual stimuli need to be registered and then prioritised for importance. We also have to process our position sense (how you know where your hand is even when you can’t see it) and our equilibrium sense (how you know when the lift is moving, where your head is in relation to gravity) and all the sensations of our busy bodies – empty stomachs, fluttering heartbeats, twitching muscles. We then have to process the data that we decided is important and make an effective plan with the data received.
“All of us vary in our ability to complete this complex processing task, but for some people their difficulties are so profound that they interfere with their ability to function in daily life,” Virginia explains. “They may either be under-responsive or over-responsive. These life-impacting difficulties come under the umbrella of SPD.”
SPD can manifest in a multitude of ways, more so than can ever be covered in a single article. Rebecca highlights some of Joe’s sensory processing challenges: “Joe was a very fidgety baby. I put it down to him being a colicky baby with reflux but when, at around 18 months, he would howl every time he woke from a nap, I realised that a sensitivity to light was causing him sensory irritation. In a mall, the lights would be too bright, the shops too colourful, people’s movements too bothersome and the smells too strong for him. He could only wear red because his visual sensitivity was so high and, preferring hard toys to soft, he would sleep with a shovel instead of a teddy.”
Spotting the signs
Depending on the severity of the difficulties a child is facing, and their particular challenges, a child can be identified as having a profile of SPD as early as his first month of life. However, Virginia and Rebecca both agree that children are often offered the support they need very late on in their journey, often because their symptoms are dismissed or misdiagnosed. Virginia comments, “I so greatly wish that parents, educators and the medical community would be empowered to look at the sensory processing ability of each child as standard practice. It has always been crystal clear to me the stress that coping with the sensory world causes many children.”
SPD can look like inattention, hyperactivity, aggression, social ineptitude, fidgeting, clumsiness, extreme shyness or even extreme compliance. These are all strategies adopted by children in order to compensate for their difficulties in understanding their world, advises Virginia.
Rebecca attests, “Joe would show his discomfort by throwing a tantrum, screaming, pushing and shoving, and generally being unhappy. He was always speaking louder than his friends which some viewed as him being overbearing. Actually, he was self-regulating his sensitivity by blocking out others and their noises by being louder than them.”
Sometimes SPD is confused with attention deficit disorder or autism, but these are all unique disorders. Research suggests that children on the autism spectrum and children identified as intellectually gifted are more likely to have SPD, but not the other way round. Chronic sensory impairments can occur in any child.
How to help
Help is available to children who are accurately diagnosed with SPD. SPOT HK for example, has purpose-built sensory gyms designed to provide joy-filled, intense and safe sensory experiences. “Sensory integration therapy should look and feel like play to the child; every session should be tailored to meet that child’s sensory needs and move them up the developmental ladder,” says Virginia, who reminds parents to always look for an occupational therapist who is sensory integration certified (USC/WPS).
At home, you are your child’s best therapist. “Ask questions, learn about the complexities of sensory processing and help your child advocate for themselves,” Virginia comments.
Rebecca continually helps Joe to self-regulate. He wears a pair of sunglasses if the light is bothersome and headphones when sounds are overbearing. He mostly wears collarless clothes with the tags cut off to avoid itchiness and, as a child who constantly needs movement, he spends ample time outdoors playing and exercising.
Cutting hair remains a huge problem, says Rebecca. “He is scared of clippers, hates wearing a soft apron, and dislikes the smell of the chemicals at the salon and the sensation of dry hair tickling his skin. Now I cut his hair in bundles while wet and cover him with a rough towel, which he much prefers.”
Having received appropriate support for his sensory processing difficulties from an early age, Joe now understands his unique self and, better equipped to manage his challenges, enjoys his home, school and social life. Rebecca concludes, “Without the right support, children with SPD can go on to struggle with anxiety issues and depression. Why waste valuable years of their lives filled with crying, out-of-the-blue tantrums, discomfort and unhappiness? With tailored support and understanding, Joe is a much happier child and our lives have changed 100 per cent for the better!”