Sensory Processing Disorder

Ninety percent of children diagnosed with autism have sensory issues.  The medical roots of sensory “scrambling” are most likely linked to:

  1. Untreated digestive disorders
  2. Untreated sleep disorders
  3. Nutrient Deficiencies
  4. Altered brain chemicals – too much glutamate, reduction or impairment in others like serotonin and GABA

One of the biggest reasons that biomedical treatment helps children and adults with autism is because
treats the underlying medical concerns that create or worsen sensory issues.  Sensory issues contribute to behaviours beyond those that would be obvious, like covering ears or refusing certain textures.  Sensory issues are often at the root of autistic behaviours such as hyperactivity, avoidance, temper tantrums, irritability, aggression and feeding issues.

How can you identify sensory issues in your kids?   Below is sensory input broken down by sense with some examples of what impairment may look like if sensory processing in a certain system is impaired:

  • Tactile – what we touch. Examples include: issues with tags, clothing, hats, socks, not wanting hands wet or dirty, touching everyone and everything, mouthing objects
  • Proprioceptive – perception of movement. Examples include: not knowing where they are in space so they constantly bounce, climb, jump, run up and down ramps, step on toes, bump into other kids on the carpet during circle time, kids who are constantly moving, sits in “W” position on the floor to stabilize themselves, stomps feet excessively, bites or sucks fingers, cracks knuckles, enjoys bear hugs, excessive banging with toys or objects, loves roughhousing / tackling /wrestling, jumps off furniture.
  • Auditory – what we hear. Examples include: reaction to sounds, often are loud themselves, like some things loud and can’t stand other things loud, hyperactivity during music or gym class, react to sounds not noticed by others, frequently asks others to be quiet, runs away, refuses to go to movies or parades.
  • Oral – what we taste and perceive with our mouth. Examples include: Breastfeeding / latching issues, difficult sucking, chewing or swallowing, gagging at certain textures, food restriction or picky eater, may have had trouble transitioning to solids or away from pureed food, constantly putting things in mouth,
  • Olfactory – what we smell. Examples include: dislikes smells that don’t usually bother other people, refuses to eat foods based on smell, tells people or comments that they smell bad or funny, bothered by perfume or cologne.
  • Visual – what we perceive visually. Examples include:  sensitivity to bright lights, difficulty keeping eyes focused, easily distracted by visual stimuli, avoiding eye contact, loses place while reading or doing math homework, writes on a slant upwards or downwards, bumps into objects or people, trips on curbs and stairs\\

Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses.  Many people commonly see sensory issues in their children with light and noise sensitivity, or textures and fit of clothing, but don’t realize that food selectivity is also part of this disorder.  Hyper –or- hypo reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment is now included in the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria. 1   

The sensory and motor systems are connected in the brain resulting in SPD to have difficulty motor planning for both gross motor and fine motor tasks.  Motor planning, also called praxis, is complex that and relies on the efficient integration of sensory information.   In the case of autism, sensory processing is impaired and the overwhelming sensory stimuli reduce the brain’s effectiveness when creating a motor plan.

1. Yi-Shin Chang,¶,1 Julia P. Owen,¶,1 Shivani S. Desai,2 Susanna S. Hill,2 Anne B. Arnett,2 Julia Harris,2 Elysa J. Marco,2,* and Pratik Mukherjee1 . Autism and Sensory Processing Disorders: Shared White Matter Disruption in Sensory Pathways but Divergent Connectivity in Social-Emotional Pathways. PLoS One. 2014; 9(7): e103038.