Sensory Integration Disorder is when your nervous system takes in information and your brain misinterprets the data. This is sort like like when you have a food allergy and your immune system decides a specific food, like nuts, is a threat and launches a full-scale attack. Your body misunderstands the threat, but it reacts nonetheless. Just like food allergies are very real and can have big and even scary impacts on your life, so can Sensory Integration Disorder.
What SPD Looks Like In Kids
Sensory Integration Disorder is also known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Each case is different, and every person experiences it differently. Some people are very sensitive. Their brains interpret the world as more painful than a typical person would experience. Normal hugs hurt. Tags in clothes are so irritating it is painful. Minor irritations like loose pants are so upsetting and distracting they lead to meltdowns. Touching slimy things like mud or paint can upset them until they gag.
This can work in the other direction too. Sensations most people would think are painful are interpreted as enjoyable by the SPD brain. For these kids, hugs that are too hard and sports that are too rough feel good. Their bodies like the impact of hitting things and they may seek that out, by jumping, climbing, and crashing all over the place. What is strange for parents to deal with is that sometimes a child who seeks these heavy touches and likes to be tackled will be extremely upset by light touches, even lashing out over them because they are painful according to their brain.
For kids with SPD, it isn’t just about touch. All the sensory systems can be involved. This means that they can be sensitive to noise, light, taste, smells, and more sensations beyond touch. They may be overwhelmed by the smells of a cafeteria and unable to eat. Some specific food smells may trigger a reaction. They may avoid foods with certain textures or flavors because their brain interprets those as a threat. Gagging when trying to eat a cup of yogurt with fruit in it isn’t uncommon, as the mixed-up textures is a trigger. Some children will gradually find more and more foods too challenging and avoid more and more of them.
Feeling Beyond The Senses
A child with SPD may struggle with interoception, the ability to interpret their body’s internally-generated sensations. These feelings include hunger, the urge to poo or pee, and the need to blow your nose. There is a lot of data we take in from our bodies each day that tells us if we are hungry or full. Do I need to go to the bathroom? Am I about to sneeze or throw up?
For most of us, we have these feelings and we act on them. We go find food to eat. We take ourselves to the restroom. Whatever triggers feelings we have, we act on it. But for people with SPD, that is difficult. If you don’t know what your body is saying you may ignore those feelings or you may associate them with pain. This is why a child with SPD can require schedules. Having a schedule of when you will give your child meals and snacks, for example, can help them eat enough food. Have times of the day you remind your child to visit the restroom so they don’t have accidents. Those reminders can help.
How To Make It Better
Kids with SPD benefit from Sensory Integration Treatment with a qualified occupational therapist. During treatment, therapists brush, swing, squeeze and play with kids to help their sensory systems rewire. Specific patterns of movement, games, and home programs can all help. Therapy like this can be done at any age and teenagers can still see pediatric therapists. Finding a therapist who works with adults with SPD may be difficult.
I’ll be honest, when I’m doing Sensory Integration Therapy with a kid, it looks like we are just playing. You wouldn’t guess I’m using specialized knowledge to challenge and feed the child’s brain exactly what I think it needs. Over time, after we have a relationship, I work with kids on challenging things they find upsetting, like touching different textures. We start with non-threatening textures and work towards more difficult ones. It is all working with the child and their brain.
While I have lots of ideas on my blog for working with your child with SPD at home, nothing compares to having an OT work one-on-one with your child.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.