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Sensory Processing Disorder: Our Seven Senses

Updated on May 17, 2014

When something goes wrong with our senses, it gets frightening in a hurry. However, some people are born with a certain type of neurology that alters the way their brains perceive sensory information from the world around them. These people have something called Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD for short.

An apt visual representation of what it can be like when you have sensory processing disorder. When all you can think about is what you constantly, see, hear, smell, taste or feel, it's difficult to pay attention to anything else.
An apt visual representation of what it can be like when you have sensory processing disorder. When all you can think about is what you constantly, see, hear, smell, taste or feel, it's difficult to pay attention to anything else. | Source

What Are Our Senses?

When we talk about our senses, we usually mean the five basic senses of touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing. Occasionally, the sixth sense, or psychic sense comes up.

In reality, we have seven:

  • Auditory, or hearing
  • Visual, or sight
  • Tactile, or touch
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Proprioceptive, or how we know how our body is positioned and how much pressure to use while doing something
  • Vestibular, or how we know we’re in motion

Usually, our bodies naturally acclimate to our surroundings, and can adjust to the level of sensory input we’re subjected to on a daily basis. Naturally, infants and young children are more sensitive than older children and adults, but sometimes that sensitivity is abnormally high, or abnormally low.

What makes the abnormal sensory perception difficult to handle is that it’s most often first observed through the behavior of young children. Since this happens before most children are old enough to know how to communicate adequately, it’s difficult to tell why the child is acting they way they are.

Once all physical problems are eliminated, there are specific symptoms you can look for in relation to each of these senses.

When you have auditory integration disorder, there's nothing wrong with your ears. The problem is with how your brain processes the input.
When you have auditory integration disorder, there's nothing wrong with your ears. The problem is with how your brain processes the input. | Source

Auditory

Auditory Integration Disorder is one of the most common forms of SPD. It’s commonly found in dyslexics, people on the autism spectrum and can be present in folks without any other diagnosis.

They can also be over- or under-sensitive to specific tones, like high tones or low tones, and have difficulty filtering out background noise.

This gets in the way with their social life and school, because it can make understanding what a teacher or someone they’re conversing with next to impossible. It can also slow down the process of learning how to speak dramatically.

Common symptoms include:

  • Covering the years to block out sound that others may not be able to hear
  • Strong over- or under-reactions to noise
  • High level of distraction and discomfort in crowded areas
  • Has problems regulating volume of their voice
  • Often asks people to repeat themselves or can’t understand what they’re saying
  • May have problems learning how to read because of phonics issues
  • Delayed speech
  • Unable to concentrate in what most people consider a quiet classroom

The attentional issues associated with this disorder are also sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD.

Visual

If someone has problems telling numbers or similar shapes apart, or if they have issues differentiating shades of color, they may have a visual processing disorder.

Visual processing disorders can affect visual memory, which is how you remember what you’ve seen, and hand eye coordination. There may also be difficulties in identifying what an object is when only a piece is visible.

One of the more dangerous and embarrassing aspects of this particular disorder is when it affects depth perception and hand-eye coordination. Sports become much harder to participate in because the individual can’t gauge how far or close a ball is, or when the put up their hands to catch it. On a social level, the child ends up being passed over during recess and physical education, because they do so poorly on the field.

There has been some research indicating that this disorder may have some sort of relationship with learning disabilities, like dyslexia.

Common symptoms include:

  • Extreme difficulty in telling letters and numbers apart
  • Inability to differentiate between similar colors and shapes
  • Walking into things because they didn’t see them
  • Easily distracted by things in the background
  • Problems following things with their eyes, like a moving ball during recess for gym class
  • Visual information retention issues, such as remembering what was written in a book or on the blackboard long enough to write it down
  • Issues with remembering directions

Of course it’s natural to have issues differentiating between similar letters and numbers as the person is still learning to read. However, if reading difficulties don’t improve on schedule, it’s time to get your child evaluated for learning disabilities or a possible sensory processing disorder.

Optical illusions fool our brains into thinking we're seeing something we're not. In many ways, this is a similar principle to visual processing disorders.
Optical illusions fool our brains into thinking we're seeing something we're not. In many ways, this is a similar principle to visual processing disorders. | Source

Tactile

We all know what it feels like to put on an itchy sweater or break in a new pair of shoes. Usually, our nervous systems naturally get used to be sensations so we can concentrate on other things. When someone has tactile processing disorder, their nervous systems aren’t able to do that, and sensations may be elevated into pain.

When this happens, they’re said to have tactile defensiveness. They may refuse to wear certain fabrics, cut the tags out of all of their clothing or refuse things like hugs or touches from other people. Many people with tactile defensiveness also dislike playing with sensory rich things like play dough or finger paints.

Conversely, it’s also possible that the child is under-responsive to touch or can’t feel anything but deep pressure. If this is the case, the individual may hurt themselves, but not be able to sense it until the injury is severe enough, or it’s noticed visually.

Some common symptoms are:

  • Extreme dislike of being touched, held or hugged
  • Refusal to wear textured materials or clothing with tags
  • Extreme dislike for vibrating toys or other forms of vibration.
  • Can’t handle dirt on their hands or face.
  • Issues with the wind blowing on their skin.
  • Refusal to stand or walk barefoot on surfaces like grass or sand.
  • Only using finger tips for messy play.
  • Meltdowns whenever they need to get dressed in the morning and certain hygiene activities.
  • Very moody or aggressive in crowded situations

The best way to help a child cope with this is to find a good occupational therapy program, and to never push a child to touch something until they're ready for it.

Taste, Smell and Memory

Taste and Smell

Because taste and smell are so intimately linked, I decided to include them in the same category.

At first, it can be hard differentiating between if a child is being picky or if they have a genuine taste related sensory problem. One key element to remember is that we use our sense of smell more often than we use our sense of taste. This fact is important, because it may help parents spot helpful patterns in their little one’s behaviors.

Besides making mealtime very difficult, it could have a direct impact on the individual’s health. If eating becomes a problem, it’s very easy to come down with malnutrition related diseases and disorders.

People can be either over responsive or under responsive to certain tastes and smells.

Although this area of sensory processing disorder doesn’t seem to be quite as well researched as others, it’s thought that there may be a close links to tactile sensory processing.

Common symptoms include:

  • Extreme distaste for areas with strong smells, like candle shops.
  • Easily distracted by aromas.
  • Meltdowns or other destructive behavior in environments like candle shops, or other places with strong scents.
  • Extremely picky about what they put in their mouths.
  • In the years passed, baby and toddler years, a continual sniffing her tasting of inanimate objects

An occupational therapist should be able to offer you guidance on how to treat this disorder. However, at home, it’s ideal to avoid strong air fresheners or other scents that offends the child until their tolerance matures.

Occupational Therapy Students Practicing A Proprioceptive Therapy Technique

Proprioceptive

The proprioceptive system tells us how our bodies are moving and where our body parts are in relation to each other. It also tells us how much pressure we use, and how we must move to complete certain tasks. Even when we’re sitting down, it’s working to tell us how to maintain our posture.

When this system is under responsive, the individual won’t be able to estimate things like necessary pressure or their location in space. This can lead to social problems, because they may be more likely to bump into their peers or accidentally break things like pencils or crayons. The other kids may not understand that this behavior isn’t on purpose and react defensively.

An individual can be over responsive as well, prompting a child to be less likely to take part in physical play, which may make them appear antisocial. Again, this is a result of the misconceptions of others about the student’s behavior.

Common symptoms include:

  • An inability to stop moving due to craving for missing input.
  • Chewing on things like nail biting, pencils, clothing
  • Prefers wearing very tight clothing.
  • Issues with climbing, riding a bike, roller-skating, or writing.
  • Accidentally bumping into people or things more often than others.
  • Frequent trips and falls.
  • A seemingly irrational fear of going up and down stairs or escalators.
  • Gets tired easily.
  • Often puts their head down while working at a desk.
  • Poor posture.

Occupational therapists work with people with this form of SPD with individualized forms of movement therapy.

A Little Girl Stimulating Her Vistibular System by Spinning on a Gym Spin

Vestibular

The system tells us when we are in motion. It’s what tells us when we’re spinning, swinging on a playground, or spinning around. It works through the tiny hairs in your ears, which register position, movement and balance.

Like the others, this type of sensory processing disorder can manifest in either oversensitivity or under sensitivity. This is most likely why children with the disorder spin in place, so they can get the sensation that they’re missing when staying still.

Often, it also coincides with auditory processing disorder.

Common symptoms are:

  • Avoidance of or extreme interest in swings, slides, merry go rounds, stairs, elevators and escalators.
  • Losing their balance easily.
  • Prefer staying still, or moves slowly, with caution.
  • Unawareness of falling.
  • Ability to swing for a long period of time without getting dizzy.
  • Rocking themselves vigorously or shaking their head.
  • Poor muscle tone.
  • Sitting with their legs in the W formation.
  • Might have skipped crawling before starting to walk.
  • May be ambidextrous

However, your child needs to be assessed for sensitivity profile before being diagnosed with this disorder. Once the assessment is done, the right kind of behavioral and occupational therapy can be of great use.

It should be noted that some physical illnesses can cause similar symptoms. If you’re worried that your child may have any of these disorders, take them to a pediatrician to rule out any physical ailments first. If your child does have SPD, the sooner you can get them into appropriate therapy, the better.

Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Integration Issues
Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Integration Issues

This book is full of easy to understand information and suggestions about how to help a child develop sensory coping skills.

 

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