Sensory Processing Disorder is not a formal diagnosis, identifying a
child (or adult, for that matter) with a sensory “issue” is a
common thing among parents, teachers and professionals. Responses to
every day sensory experiences such as light, sound, movement and
touch can be over, or under interpreted. The tag on a t-shirt, the
ticking of a schoolroom clock, a bouncy ride on a school bus, the
fluorescent lights at the supermarket, the flickers of restaurant
televisions . . . these and other seemingly innocuous experiences can
be enough to cause significant attentional and behavioral changes in
a sensitive individual.
Identifying the triggers for an attentional or behavioral change can be confusing because the nature of the sensory system is that we perceive it ourselves! If you have always experienced your sensory world accurately, it can be difficult to conceive that another individual will perceive the same stimulation a different way. Additionally, besides the 5 senses that we all know, we have what’s called the vestibular sense which helps us perceive movement of our head. We also have a sense of proprioception which uses our muscles and joints to tell us where our body is in space. Accurately perceiving our own bodies and how we are moving through space are extremely important perceptions that give the brain a sense of orientation, balance and stability. Feeling oriented is a very high priority for the brain and errors in this sensory process undoubtedly influence attention and behavior.
In our office, we thoroughly assess these sensory systems. The brain produces predictable reflexive responses to our sensory world, which can be readily observed and measured. If something touches our skin, we should easily be able to localize where we were touched with precision and accuracy. If we look at a target and turn our head, our eyes should move exactly equally and opposite our head so that we can continue looking at our target of interest. If we close our eyes and touch our nose, we should be able to easily target our own body without error or hesitation. Errors in these and other tests can indicate that an individual has a sensory processing problem, and therapeutic intervention can often fully correct these findings.
One out of 42 boys and 1 in 68 children overall have a diagnosis of autism. In the United States, autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder, with about 100 new diagnoses every day. But autism isn’t the only developmental disorder - there are also delays in speech, gross and fine motor development, and pervasive developmental disorders. ADHD is considered to be a delay in the development of normal networks for attention and impulse control.
As the saying goes, if you have a met a child with a developmental delay, you have met ONE child with a developmental delay. Each child’s presentation is unique, and deserves individualized assessment and a unique intervention strategy. Potentially, strategies need to encompass aspects of speech, motor, sensory, social, behavioral and emotional development.
In autism in particular, research on the cause is decades from being conclusive; research on the brain networks involved is broad and sometimes contradictory; and individual presentation can vary so widely that it can be surprising that two completely different individuals can have the same diagnosis. Our individualized assessment is organized structurally, looking at fundamental reflexes from the brainstem, aspects of coordination coming from the cerebellum, sensory and motor functions that come from higher parts of the brain, and aspects of executive function that come from the frontal lobes. In this way, we can analyze foundational aspects of brain function, understand where they are breaking down for a specific child, and develop an individualized plan of evidenced-based strategies to begin seeing progress.
One primary area of focus in our evaluation is in a child’s systems for orientation. The brain will prioritize feeling oriented so that we have a feeling of safety and wherewithal. The brain combines our inner ear’s perception of movement (vestibular sense), our dynamic use of vision, and feeling of our body from muscles and joints in a finely-tuned orchestration to create an accurate sense of orientation. If that system is mis-calibrated, or “off” by even a little bit, then the consequences can be significant. This is one reason why the therapies we choose are often accessing these systems - vestibular therapy, ocular-motor training, and sensory-motor activities are essential aspects of all of our treatment plans.