Updated: Apr 6
For a parent that suspects or finds that their child has sensory processing disorder (SPD), the world can start to look different. Your child may also have coinciding disorders like ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, or other processing challenges that they have been diagnosed with. Now, you find you have a new challenge to understand so that you can help your child navigate the world around them.
Your child’s constant over or under reaction to sensory stimuli may lead you to try exercises and activities geared toward helping them, and that’s a good instinct. But to truly help your child, you’ll first need to get a grasp on the subtype of SPD they have.
WHAT IS SENSORY PROCESSING DISORDER?
Typically when we talk about the senses, we refer to the five that we learned back in school - taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight. In truth, however, you can easily add at least two more to that list, and some experts claim, three - vestibular (body movement), proprioceptive (body awareness), and interoception (internal body sensations).
When these senses work well, you have a sense of what’s going on inside and outside of your body at any given time. Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is when the body misinterprets the signals from those senses.
SPD can be challenging to diagnose, treat, and manage because the number of senses impaired can vary greatly. Your child could have only one or two of their sensory systems involved, or all seven or eight. In addition, there are several potential subtypes of SPD. While some therapies and exercises may cross over sub-types, coming up with an appropriate sensory diet for your child requires working with their support team to understand their specific needs.
SUB-TYPES OF SPD
There are 3 main types of SPD - over-responsiveness, under-responsiveness, and sensory seeking. Each of these are driven by different needs and input challenges.
When SPD is categorized as an over-responsive type, the child has an exaggerated nervous system response to sensory input. They feel as if they are being bombarded by information, and their system reacts as if they were under attack, putting the child into a fight-or-flight mode.
Symptoms can range from being a picky eater or disliking tags in clothing to disliking being held, being overwhelmed in crowds, and even disliking daily hygiene activities like teeth-brushing and washing their hair.
Under-responsiveness is when the child has a lack of response to external stimuli. They may seem to be frequently daydreaming or seem disconnected from what’s going on around them. There may also be problems with fine motor skills and coordination.
While this might seem at first blush to be less severe than over-responsiveness, the symptoms can be just as concerning and even dangerous. While some children may present with symptoms like being messy or unkempt or have poor posture, these children can also have a high pain tolerance and be clumsy - a concerning combination as they may not notice cuts or bruises.
For children with the sensory seeking subtype of SPD, input must be intense and frequent for the brain to even process it. These children can be driven to seek out sensory information, but their desire for more input isn’t satisfied.
Sensory seekers may be constantly in motion, touching everything, and even putting things in their mouths frequently. They may have difficulty sitting still and have poor attention spans. They likely prefer roughhousing type play and, in contrast to the over-responsive subtype, are happiest in highly stimulating environments.
HOW UNDERSTANDING THE SPD SUB-TYPE HELPS
As the parent of a child diagnosed with SPD, it’s important to work with your child’s support team to understand their subtype. Many symptoms crossover, so it can be hard to determine this on your own.
For instance, someone who is under-responsive can have attention challenges just like a sensory seeker may appear to have these same challenges. Both types also like salty or spicy foods. Yet the sensory seeker might play by roughhousing to increase stimulation while the under-responsive type could also seem to be rough due to inabilities to poor body awareness and clumsiness. They also could get hurt during this type of play and not realize it. So which sub-type are you seeing?
Knowing the subtype will help tailor the activities and therapies that you, your OT, and caregivers can use with your child. It’s also important to have your support team help determine which senses are impacted. A child with sensitivity to lights or sounds may respond particularly well to deep pressure therapy or weighted clothing. These kinds of therapies can also help sensory seekers.
and adding in input to daily activities should be a cooperative effort with you and your child’s support team. Because your child’s sensory needs are as unique as they are, it’s essential to get the input of your team before you embark on activities at home. Working together you can work with your child through their normal routine to assist them in better processing sensory input.