Sensory Processing Disorder

I often find myself giving out this excellent resource, so I figured I should share it with you. Many people are aware that students with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) have "sensory issues". However, most people that I have met do not know that individuals do not have to have ASD to deal with sensory struggles. Individuals with any disorder, particularly ADD and ADHD have problems integrating sensory information. Some people are even diagnosed only with SPD and don't meet the criteria for any other diagnosis. Regardless of the alphabet soup (what I call the myriad of acronym-diagnoses) attached to an individual, it's great to know how the sensory system works and what to do when someone is struggling with SPD or similar symptoms.

Think about a newborn infant, suddenly thrust into the world of sensory information that until birth was muffled significantly. What do newborns typically do when they are "over stimulated"? They typically simply shut down and go to sleep. Their brains are so overwhelmed that they just shut down to regroup. Fast forward a year or two and think about an over-tired toddler. What do they do? Do they ask to take a nap or crawl into bed? Rarely! They generally get more and more hyper and out of control. These are both examples of normally developing sensory systems.

The sensory systems are not typically fully developed until around age 10. If the brain is not making connections smoothly between systems, this can affect learning in all areas and can be manifested in a wide variety of observable behaviors. Children may appear lethargic, withdrawn, depressed, distracted, hyper, out of control or antsy when their system is not coordinated. This is often the reason why an overtired, overstressed or hungry student exhibits these same behaviors. However, sometimes the problem is actually a neurological issue that can be defined as SPD. This is a great analogy from www.sensory-processing-disorder.com :
"Imagine driving a car that isn't working well. When you step on the gas the car sometimes lurches forward and sometimes doesn't respond. When you blow the horn it sounds blaring. The brakes sometimes slow the car, but not always. The blinkers work occasionally, the steering is erratic, and the speedometer is inaccurate. You are engaged in a constant struggle to keep the car on the road, and it is difficult to concentrate on anything else.

The range of the symptoms vary widely. Here is a video from an individual who is hypersensitive to stimuli and has been diagnosed with SPD. (Some students, often those with ADHD, are not sensitive enough to stimuli and that is why they crave more, more, more!)

The author at Sensory-Processing-Disorder.com has an excellent page regarding symptoms from which I have highlighted a few parts:
Imagine if:

  • You could see obstacles in your way, but you could not make your body move the direction you wanted it to to avoid them.

  • You felt like someone had given you a shot of Novocain in your backside so you couldn't feel if you were sitting in the middle of your chair and you fell off 3 times during this training.

  • Your clothes felt like they were made of fiberglass.

  • You tried to drink a cup of water from a paper cup, only you couldn't tell how hard to squeeze it to hold onto it. So, you squeezed it too hard and the water spilled all over you. The next time you didn't squeeze it hard enough and it fell right through your hands and onto the floor.

  • Every time you tried to write with your pencil, it broke because you pushed too hard.

  • The different smells in this room made you utterly nauseous.

  • The humming of the lights sounded louder than my voice.

  • You couldn't focus your eyes on me because everything and everyone in the room catches your attention and your eyes just go there instead.

  • The lights are so bright you have to squint, then you get a pounding headache half way through the presentation

  • Every time someone touches you, it feels like they are rubbing sandpaper on your skin.

  • You could only sit here for 15 minutes and then you had to take a run around the building or do 20 jumping jacks so you could sit for another 10 minutes before your muscles felt like they were going to jump out of your skin.

  • People's whispers sounded like they were yelling.

  • The tag in the back of your shirt makes you feel as uncomfortable as you would if a spider was crawling on you and you couldn't get him off.

  • You wanted to write something down but it took you at least 5 seconds to form each letter. You can see the letter in your head, but your hand will not go in the right direction to write it.

  • You had to pull the car over 3 times on the ride here because the motion makes you sick.

As you can see, if you are struggling with all of this, learning something new, listening to a lecture, walking in a hallway, eating in a crowded cafeteria or completing homework would all be quite challenging.  I highly recommend reading up on this disorder and in particular looking at ways you can make your classroom more comfortable for students dealing with SPD or similar symptoms.