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What the Heck is Sensory Processing Disorder?

  • By Dr. Kawthar Hameed Abdullah Ed.D Educational Psychology & Special Education Sensory Processing Disorder To understand what sensory processing disorder is, we first must understand the basics of what sensory processing is. Sensory processing or sensory integration refers to the nervous system’s job of taking in all the information around us through our senses (movement, touch, smell, taste, visual, and hearing) and organizing that information so that we can attach meaning to it and act on it accordingly. Sensory processing is the basis for learning. It is what allows us to get an idea of what is going on in the world around us. We learn when we take in new information, cross reference the new information to previous similar experiences, and make an assessment as to how we should proceed given the current set of information. For example, when you hear a dog barking, your ears take in the information and your brain attaches meaning to it, such as identifying it as an animal, not a cat but a dog, determining how close it is, and deciding whether it sounds like a big dog or a small dog. Then the brain matches that information with past experiences that have been stored as memory. If you have ever been bitten by a dog, you may run to get away when you hear the barking. On the other hand, if you grew up with dogs, the sound may make you homesick for your childhood home. The development of sensory systems begins in the womb and continues throughout our lives. In the early childhood years, the nervous system is in hyper-development and sensory integration is being refined through typical childhood activities. This is why the first few years of childhood are considered the sensory-motor years, and are crucial for laying the foundation for our nervous system.

Now that I’ve explained what sensory processing is, what does it mean when a child has sensory processing disorder? Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) describes the difficulty that some people’s nervous systems have in making use of and integrating sensory information. SPD can exist when there are no other underlying conditions or can be present in conjunction with other neurological or psychological diagnoses. Sensory Processing Disorder is a result of neurological disorganization that affects nervous system processing in a few different ways. The brain is not receiving messages, or the messages that are received are inconsistent, or the sensory information is consistent but does not integrate properly with other sensory information from the other related sensory systems. Here is a list of signs & Symptoms that may point to Sensory Processing Disorder:

  • Overly sensitive to touch, movement, sights, or sounds

  • Under reactive to touch, movement, sights, or sounds

  • Easily distracted

  • Social and/or emotional problems

  • Activity level that is unusually high or unusually low

  • Physical clumsiness or apparent carelessness

  • Impulsive, lacking in self-control

  • Difficulty making transitions from one situation to another

  • Inability to unwind or calm self

  • Poor physical self-concept

  • Delays in speech, language, or motor skills

Delays in academic achievement Categories of Sensory Processing Disorder: 1. Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD) Sometimes the nervous system’s reactions to everyday stimuli are either “too much” or “too little” relative to the stimuli. Sensory Modulation Disorder describes this set of conditions. There are three different types of SMD:

  • Sensory Over-Responsivity Disorder

  • Sensory Under-Responsivity Disorder

  • Sensory Seeking/Craving 2. Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD) One of the key things the sensory nervous system does is give us vital information about our own bodies as well as our environment. Sensory Discrimination Disorder is the inability to distinguish one type of input from another. Persons with SDD have difficulty distinguishing and categorizing various attributes about the physical environment. A child may not process hot and cold in the same way we do or may not process the difference when lifting a full soda can versus an empty one. 3. Sensory-Based Motor Disorders These disorders result when a child’s nervous system is not processing or integrating movement and body information, leading to interference with a child’s motor skills. Sensory Based Motor Disorders have two subtypes:

  • Postural Disorder (difficulties maintaining appropriate body postures)

  • Dyspraxia ( difficulties with fine motor skills )

These are some of the basics of sensory processing disorder, if you feel that your child has some of these signs and symptoms, do not hesitate to get an evaluation for your child.

Dr. Kawthar Hameed Abdullah is an educational psychologist and special educational specialist. She holds a Ed.D in both educational psychology and special education. She has over 25 years experience working with children with different educational, intellectual and emotional challenges.


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