What is Sensory Processing Disorder

What is SPD? Plus 3 Helpful Tips!

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In today’s world, the term “sensory processing disorder,” also known as “SPD,” has become quite common. But the trick is, a lot of people don’t actually know what it means; they don’t understand what it looks like, much less how it feels; they can’t explain it to their neighbor. 

This is largely because when the term “SPD” comes up, it’s oftentimes not explained. A brief description might come up but when we start diving into the sensory world, a brief description just doesn’t cut it. In fact, I barely scratch the surface in this post. But, we’ll see how it goes. 

What is Sensory Processing Disorder

The 3 Hidden Senses in Sensory Processing Disorder

We all know about our 5 senses. You might even know about our hidden senses (proprioception, vestibular, and interoception). You might even know that when our senses and our brain signals get mixed up, we can have challenges with understanding what’s happening.

That’s the simplest way to describe sensory processing disorder– a sensory experience occurs and the signals to the brain get confused, distorted, or mixed up resulting in an “unexpected” response (unexpected is in quotes due to the fact that I’m replacing the word “inappropriate” with “unexpected” … but that’s a whole other story!). 

So let me give an example:

You and your child are making pancakes. Your child helps pour the mix and the milk, maybe add a couple of eggs. Then your child begins to stir and mix it all together, resulting in some of the mixture spilling and getting on your child’s hands. Instead of either asking to wash it off, or licking it off (come on, we all do it, right?!), or just ignoring it, your child begins to yell, scream, cry. Your realize it’s because your child cannot tolerate the feeling of the wet mixture and their brain is not producing an expected response because somewhere along the way, the tactile input was improperly processed. 

What is Sensory Processing Disorder

Just a quick side a note

Now here’s a quick side note — this scenario might happen the first time your child gets something wet and sticky on their hands (think of pancake mix, or spaghetti sauce, or mud) but when it happens again in the future, the expectation is that their sensory system will produce a more expected result than the time before. But if your child falls inside the realm of SPD, they likely will not. 

Now let’s fast forward

Let’s fast forward and say that you’ve done your research – Google has provided you with an intense amount of research and articles and so many websites with ideas that you can’t figure out which one to read first. Meanwhile, your child is refusing to help you make pancakes due to their fear of the mix getting on their hands again. 

It’s insanely overwhelming … frustrating … and hard to understand … it’s unfathomable. But there are things you can do RIGHT NOW to help your child (or your niece / nephew, grandchild, godchild, friend’s child, neighbor’s child) and to help yourself to better understand and navigate this crazy sensory world that we live in.

First, you should be empathetic

Remember – your child’s sensory system and brain are working against them and as your child learns to better understand and navigate it, you will be the one to comfort them, to snuggle with them; be the one they run to when they’re scared or hurt; and will be the one to remind them that they are unique and talented. You get to remind them that it’s okay to have hard days, to feel nervous, and feel what they feel. Be there for them when it’s hard. Be there for them when their brain works against them and they can’t explain it. Just be there for them

Next, seek out therapy

As a COTA (Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant), I will of course advocate 100% for getting your child into occupational therapy (OT) as soon as possible. Because we’re talking about your child’s sensory system here, you want to make sure that your child receives OT with a focus on sensory integration. And here’s the deal — carryover (of various exercises, techniques, and strategies) is responsible for at least 75% of the success we see in our sensory kiddos (don’t quote me on that … I just threw that number out there based on my experience!). Which leads me to my third and final suggestion …

What is Sensory Processing Disorder

Lastly, carryover, strategies, tools, etc.

Because your child’s sensory system and brain interact and interpret our world differently than what we expect, you are going to need to use different activities, equipment, games, strategies, etc. than you originally expected. Each child is unique which means that one strategy will work wonders for one child while your child might hate it. That’s just how life works, right?! *insert wink face here* 

Basically what I’m saying is this — find what your child likes, what makes them feel good, and what helps them tolerate the in-tolerable. 

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if your child has a diagnosis or not. It doesn’t matter what your child’s diagnosis is. What matters is that you LOVE your child. Your child loves you. Your child looks up to you, watches and listens to you. You want the best things for your child – to be happy, successful, and healthy. That’s what matters. And if you do one thing every day to help your child become happy, successful, and healthy, then you’re winning. 

What is Sensory Processing Disorder

Be sure to check out these resources (maybe before you go back to Google again!)

  • The Sensory Project Show Podcast
    • A weekly podcast for parents, therapists, and educators to learn the truth behind Occupational Therapy, Sensory Integration, and the key components to finding health and wellness for the entire family. 
  • The Out of Sync Child (book)
    • A book offering comprehensive, clear information for parents and professionals–and a drug-free treatment approach for children
  • Sensational Kids (book) 
    • This revised edition will include the latest research on SPD’s relationship to autism, as well as new treatment options and coping strategies for parents, teachers, and others who care for kids with SPD.
  • STAR Institute
    • STAR Institute is the premier treatment, research and education center for children and adults with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). This includes feeding disorders and other disorders with sensory issues such as autism and ADHD.

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What is Sensory Processing Disorder

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About the writers

The Sensory Project

Jessica is a COTA/L, residing and changing lives in Idaho. She and her co-host Rachel (also a COTA/L) strive daily to help children and families learn more, navigate, and thrive in our sensory world. They are the hosts of The Sensory Project Show, a podcast that can be found on iTunes and Stitcher. Rachel also fashions and sells weighted items over at The Sensory Project.

Additionally, they recently decided to jump into the membership site world and are getting ready to launch their very own site to reach more people and provide more sensory education. They would love for you to reach out to them at thesensoryprojectshow208@gmail.com. You can also find them on Instagram and Facebook at The Sensory Project Show.

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