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Monday, 1 July 2013

The 8 Senses: What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

I wrote about SPD (sensory processing disorder) in a post, but it was only related to multilingualism because I thought that most people would be somehow familiar with that term. Recently, however, I was having an email exchange with a friend, told her about my daughter’s SPD and she asked me what that was. So I suppose that maybe more of you have never heard of it and would be interested in finding out more.

So you have heard about the typical 5 senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. And we do have all of these. But there are in fact eight senses. The additional ones are: Interoception (giving you information about whether you are hungry, want to drink something or have to go to the restroom), Proprioception (which works for muscles, that you use for example in holding a pen, throwing a ball, being hugged), and Vestibular (which informs you of the position of your body in space).

These senses are important because they provide us with information about the world. While impulses are collected by eyes, ears, mouths etc., they are actually interpreted in our brains. And sometimes, while our eyes and ears are just fine, the brain reacts in a way that is either too strong or too weak for the impulse. If that happens, we call it SPD: Sensory Processing Disorder.

And while I would argue that it is only a disorder if it’s really bad and makes life difficult, many of us find that our responses to stimuli are… weird. And by weird, I mean, either too strong or not strong enough. For the 5 first senses, it is very easy to explain: for example someone complains of noise when nobody else even notices. Or they’re bothered by smells. Or they avoid bright lights. Or, on the contrary, they like very loud music, bright lights, strong smells and tastes. They prefer touching themselves rather than being touched and don’t like light touch (like for example when somebody touches their face with their fingertips) and prefer much deeper touch (like hugging).

The additional three senses are somewhat more difficult to explain. As for interoception, maybe you have a child that complains of belly aches because he doesn’t know that he’s hungry or has to go to the toilet. Or, maybe you have a child like my Klara (or like myself) who needs food RIGHT NOW or else we will kill you. Maybe you have a child who refuses to wear a jacket in the winter because she doesn’t know she’s cold, or on the contrary, a child who wears long sleeves everywhere.

 The sense of prioception controls the muscles and helps you realize how strong you have to grab something in order to keep it. Some children always break stuff, because they grab on too strongly. Others break things because they’re not holding on strongly enough. Also, look at your child’s muscle tone. Julia was born with super flexible, limb muscles. A child like that won’t help you when you put on her stockings, and seems to put tons of energy into usual things like walking, standing up, opening doors (when your muscles are over-flexible, it takes a lot longer to get them into the correct position) It took Julia almost 2 years to learn to walk, and she is very flexible, but she is catching up fast and that’s what counts. Or, maybe you have a child who always seems tense and strong, but lack flexibility.

 And there is (or should I say in my case there isn’t) the vestibular sense. This tells you where you are in space. It helps you gauge the distance between things or find your way in a new place. Some children deliberately bump into things to “feel” them. They love swinging, sliding, being picked up quickly, and riding on the merry-go-round. Of course, many children love that. But take Klara. We go to the playground and of all the toys here, she picks the swing. And then she swings. For two hours. Others hate when their feet leave the ground. They get dizzy, are afraid of heights, and always walk with great caution.

Now, the question is whether it is really a disorder. I would vote no unless it is very severe. Some of these traits can be really debilitating, but unless it is extremely severe, I wouldn’t speak of it as a disorder, but rather of sensory preferences. Another good point to consider is whether it annoys the child, (some, like my Julia are perfectly fine with not being able to run around at 22 months). Her therapist told me that when children are fine with their sensory preferences, therapy may seem like a way to suggest new things to a child, or isn't needed at all. However, if the child's preferences are getting in his or her way, therapy (physical or occupational) could help.

 Some children are more sensitive; while others prefer a much louder, brighter, stimulating environment (I wouldn’t call them insensitive, however). Also, while we have sensory seekers and sensory avoiders, the child can be both depending on what sense we're talking about (it is possible to seek impulses for one sense while avoiding impulses for others). Also, keep in mind that sensory avoiders are usually easier to spot than sensory seekers (who are usually described as curious but troublesome).

I am no expert on this. I am just a parent who has read about SPD and given it a lot of thought- and most probably has it as well. So, please, if you think that something is wrong with your child, contact your doctor.

Here are some more great ressources on SPD:

The SPD Blogger Network: http://www.spdbloggernetwork.com/
SPD on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_processing_disorder
The SPD Foundation: http://www.spdfoundation.net/
Sensory Processing Disorder Ressource Page:http://www.sensory-processing-disorder.com/ 

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  1. Hi,I just read your post about SPD and you did a nice job of explaining it related to your daughter and yourself. My daughter has SPD and was diagnosed at 2, she is now 16 and hers was so severe that she cried most of everyday, as she was afraid of all sensations. I really like how you said that each child is different and to see a specialist if you think something is wrong as in our case, to NOT have sought help would have not given my daughter a life. Thank you for your post. I wanted to offer our story to help others.
    I wrote a book about her life and journey titled "I Believe In You: A Mother and Daughter's Special Journey" I hope you can/will share this with your readers.
    My blog to read a bit more about Elizabeth is www.michelegianettti.com
    Again, your blog post was very well done

    1. Hi Michele, thank you for your kind words. I am glad that this post was useful to you. I wrote it because I felt that maybe not everybody knows what SPD is, but also because I think I may have it myself and will write about that as well.Thank you for sharing your story, I liked your facebook page and will check out your book!

  2. Just popping over from KBN...such a lovely informative post...glad to have found your blog :)

    1. Hi Jodie, I am glad you found this post helpful.. and glad to have found you, too! The KBN is a great group and I am honured to be apart of it!

  3. Informative post indeed! Today 2 out of 10 children are suffering from sensory processing disorder which can be explained as abnormal reaction and behavioral responses to sensory stimuli. It generally varies in severity and presentation in different children. These children often have to face several social as well as communicational challenges in their life. As my child is also suffering from ear disorder so I know how difficult it is for him to cope up with the outer world. He often responds uniquely or somewhat differently to noise, crowd, strong smells and variations in temperatures.

    1. Hi Kristen, welcome and thank you for your comment. Oh wow, 2 out of 10 children is a lot! Yes, I know from my own experiences how hard it is to deal with stimuli sometimes. I hope that children will get help without getting too stressed out by the therapy. All the best to you and your son!


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