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Sensory processing disorder is often misunderstood; I hear people asking questions about it all the time. In fact, I hear parents saying, “that’s a sensory” thing when children don’t want to eat something or wear something. That is definitely true, but there is a whole lot more to sensory processing disorder than itchy socks or mushy food. Here are two common questions.

 

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Q: It is seems like autism and sensory processing disorder (SPD) have a lot in common. Can you please identify the differences between these disorders?

A: You are right when you say that there are a lot of parallels between the behaviors exhibited by children who suffer from autism or SPD. First, a brief explanation of both autism and SPD.

 

Autism

Children with autism generally have problems in three crucial areas of development – social interaction, language and behavior. The areas of social interaction involved are: the refusal to hug or cuddle, the rejection of others as playmates, and a lack of emotional attachment. With language, children with autism often speak late and when they do its in a monotonous tone. They also avoid eye contact. Lastly, they usually perform repetitive motions, move constantly, and are very sensitive to light or noise.

 

Sensory Processing Disorder

Because SPD reveals itself in multiple modes, it is helpful to look at the three most common forms of SPD as explained by Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of The Out of Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder.

 

Over-Responsive Child Under-Responsive Child Sensory-Seeking Child
Response to Sensation “Oh no!” “Ho, hum.” “More!”
Touch Avoids touching or being touched. Reacts strongly to certain textures of clothing or food. Is unaware of messy hands, face, or clothes/ Does not notice how things feel and often drops them. Seeks out every sensation: dumps out toys and rummages purposelessly, chews on shirts cuffs, rubs against walls.
Sights Gets overexcited with too much to look at. Ignores new stimuli – even objects in his path. Seeks visually stimulating scenes for lengthy times.
Sounds, Smells, Tastes Objects to loud sounds, strong odors, and certain textures or temperatures of food. Is unaware or unresponsive to loud sounds, unpleasant odors, and spicy foods. Welcomes loud noises, seeks strong odors, and prefers spicy or very hot foods.

 

 

One major commonality between the two disorders is explained by Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, in their book, The Mislabeled Child:

Like children with autism, children with sensory processing disorder typically show signs of problems with the long-distance connections that integrate different areas of their brains, with the cerebellum (which helps to regulate and “smooth out’”the brain’s different perceptions and responses), and with the frontal lobes (which help coordinate brain activities).

In other words, children who have either SPD or autism will experience an inability to process many different stimuli and effectively produce a response.

Because of the lack of long distance communication between their cerebellum and frontal lobes, SPD and autism can lead to children being overwhelmed by noise or conversely needing music played at all hours of the day. Some children may refuse physical contact, while others might touch every object they encounter. Some children will only eat mild foods with similar consistencies, whereas others will crave spicy foods with a variety of flavors.

There is, however, an essential difference between children on the autistic spectrum and those with SPD. That difference lies in social interaction. Children with autism struggle with connecting emotionally to those around them, whereas those with SPD have no such problems. So, SPD is all about physical struggles whereas autism also has an emotional and social component – and that’s the real difference.

 

Q: I’ve been told that my son has a sensory processing disorder. I’m not sure what this means and I’m also not clear on how this could affect him in school. From what I have read, sensory processing disorders are not necessarily academically based. Is this true?

A: There is always a lot of confusion surrounding sensory processing disorder – mainly because there are many different diagnoses that fall under that catch-all phrase, among them are three specific subcategories (you can also view the chart in the first question):

Sensory Over-responsivity: In this category, children respond very strongly to minimal stimuli. They often avoid touching or being touched. They often react strongly to certain textures of clothing or food. In addition, they will get overexcited with too much to look at or with strong smells or sound.

Sensory Under-responsivity: In contrast, children with this form of SPD often pay little or no attention to the sensory experiences around them. They are unaware of messy hands, face, or clothes. They will also fail to notice how things feel and will often drop them. When presented with new stimuli, they will ignore them – even if a food is extra spicy or a noise is particularly loud.

Sensory Seeking: Children who are sensory seeking are exactly that – always looking for new sensations. They dump toys and rummage purposelessly, chew on shirt cuffs, and rub against walls. They welcome loud noises, seek strong odors, and prefer spicy or hot foods.

While children who fall into these categories can exhibit wide and sometimes opposite characteristics, they are all classified as possessing a sensory processing disorder. No wonder you were confused!

Now, to your second question, do sensory processing disorders affect academics? The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding “yes.” First, simply in the child’s ability (or inability) to sit still when there is a plethora of sensory information in a classroom. Many sensory seeking children cannot help getting up to touch a letter on the bulletin board while over-responsive children will flinch at every noise. In this way, classrooms of twenty-five children or more can make learning difficult for children with SPD.

Carol Stock Kranowitz in her book The Out of Sync Child explains the second way that SPD affects learning:

Your child yanks the cat’s tail, and the cat hisses, arches its back, and spits. Normally, through experience, a child will learn not to repeat such a scary experience. He learns to be cautious. In the future, his behavior will be more adaptive.

The child with SPD, however, may have difficulty “reading cues,” verbal or nonverbal, from the environment. He may not decode the auditory message of the cat’s hostile hissing, the visual message of the cat’s arched back, or the tactile message of spit on his cheek. He misses the “big picture” and may not learn appropriate caution.

While this situation is both dangerous and frightening, it also illustrates a larger issue within academic learning. If your child cannot decode sensations (the pencil is held in his hand in a certain way, the pursing of the lips to form the letter “B,” or the nuanced difference between the phonemes /d/ and /t/), he will have difficulty grasping the concepts essential for elementary reading, writing and math.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of living with children with SPD is that they are often bright and motivated, yet cannot seem to function in an orderly fashion. For that reason, it is important to remember that the inability to function smoothly is not because the child won’t, but because he can’t. Once you are able to recognize this, helping your child decode and interpret the sensations around him becomes significantly simpler.

 

Register now for an anger management workshop by Dr. Ross Greene on November 14, 2017. Please call Mrs. Schonfeld at 718-382-5437 for more information.

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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@gmail.com.