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What SPD is and what it isn’t.

March 5, 2020
by Becky Ferrigno

How Do I Get A Sensory Processing Disorder Diagnosis?

Sensory Processing Disorder is not new. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist, created the term Sensory Integration Dysfunction in the 1970s. Now we refer to SID as Sensory Processing Disorder. 

Typically, a parent, teacher, or other provider brings up concerns they are seeing. The family will contact their pediatrician. After that, the doctor will refer you to a pediatric occupational therapist (OT) trained in SPD. This OT will complete an evaluation and ask your family to answer a series of questions. The OT observation and evaluation and family/school questionnaire provide the basis for the OT’s diagnosis. 

After you are diagnosed with SPD, you usually will start seeing an OT and other therapists who will help you learn to manage your senses and return balance to your world. (For more information on the therapies people with SPD use, check out Section Two of the Book!

What SPD IS and What It ISN’T

What It Is: A neurological disorder.

People with neurological (brain) disorders typically act inconsistently. It is well accepted that an anxious person does not have the same level of anxiety on a day to day or even hour to hour basis. Outside situations, people, and even the weather can change how an anxious person reacts to life. The same can be said about Sensory Processing Disorder. Sensory Processing Disorder is a brain misfiring that increases or is manageable depending on the unique situation or circumstance the person is in at the moment. 


What It Is: A disorder that results in a variety of reactions to different stimuli. 

Sensory Processing Disorder results in a heightened or lack of awareness of sights, sounds, and scents. This intense input of information causes children to frequently struggle to pay attention and stay focused on tasks. Since every sense is different, it is very common for SPD kids to have some areas where they are hyper or over-sensitive and other areas where they are hypo or under-sensitive. This means that the adults who help kids with SPD need to understand their unique needs. These needs guide the treatment path they are on. 


What It Is Not: A reaction that you can intentionally produce or control without outside help. To the uninformed onlooker, a child or adult with Sensory Processing Disorder can present as ill-behaved, difficult, and gross (sensory seekers often chew on their clothes and other atypical items). In reality, these behaviors are a physical result of what the person is struggling with internally.


What It Is Not: Something a person outgrows. 

Unlike a bad habit or behavior, SPD cannot be “fixed.” The lack of communication between a person’s senses and the brain is a challenge that people with SPD must handle daily throughout their entire life. Like Autism, ADHD, and Learning Disabilities, it is not something one outgrows. Instead, through a lot of work with therapists and support, a person with Sensory Processing Disorder can learn to manage his or her symptoms and even grow to appreciate the benefits SPD brings to his or her life. 


What It Is Not:  A result of bad parenting. 

Many parents of kids with Sensory Processing Disorder do everything they can to get their children the help they need. They spend countless hours at therapists and know the best approaches to keep their children regulated.

Living with Sensory Processing Disorder, A Real World Example.

John is 4 years old. Sitting on a hard, unpadded seat causes him a lot of physical pain. With the help of his occupational therapist, John has been learning how to sit on a variety of chairs and floors without melting down. 

Today is Tuesday, so John is at the grocery store with his Mom. Since he started working with Ms. Jane, his OT, he has been able to sit in the tractor grocery cart without a problem. Unfortunately, the weather has changed and he had to put on his winter coat, hat, gloves, and boots before going outside today. All of these new pieces of clothing have caused his senses to work overtime. The boots touch his legs at a different place than his sneakers do. The cloth between his fingers, makes his skin itch and the hat and winter coat feel heavy on his body. By the time he reaches the grocery store, his nerves are on edge. His brain, having received confusing messages about the situation from the senses, believes it is under attack and puts John’s body on high alert. As John and his mother approach the grocery store, his body has jumped into action and is preparing to protect itself from whatever danger approaches. 


As John and his Mom turn the corner into the grocery store, his eyes lock onto the grocery cart. His eyes tell his brain that the worst fear has come true. His body is truly is under attack. So John’s brain tells his body the best thing it thinks it can “Whatever you do, don’t let him get into that cart. That cart is DANGEROUS!” As John’s mother reaches down to lift him into the cart, he digs his heels in and starts screaming and hitting. John’s Mom is stunned.

This reaction surprises her, seeming like it has come out of nowhere. She tries to reason with John and figure out what is going on but he is unable to talk to her. Her attempt to move him out of the way of other shoppers fails and she is at a loss of what to do. A woman passes by her and mutters under her breath just loud enough for John’s mother to hear “Get control of your child!” Embarrassed, John’s mother scoops him up and brings him to a bench outside. She sits him on her lap and wraps him in a hug. Her hug reassures his brain that he is safe and he begins to relax. As he relaxes his mother has time to think about what happened.

She realizes that John has had a hard time adjusting to the new clothes. She asks him how the clothes feel and he uses the words “heavy, itchy and strange.” She realizes that he can’t handle going to the store while working through these new sensations. They go home and she returns later by herself to shop. 

Within a few weeks, John has adjusted to the winter clothes and can go shopping with his mother again. He really does enjoy going to the grocery store. He always gets a treat at the end and he and his Mom sing songs the whole time!