Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Doing My Part to Educate the World About Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

I've been joking for months with my friends that it is my goal to educate the world about SPD. It's kind of hard to do that from my living room. So, I've finally decided to upgrade to a blog to reach a bigger audience and hopefully be a support to other parents parenting a child with this disorder.

I will start by answering the obvious question. What is Sensory Processing Disorder (aka SPD)? It used to be known as Sensory Integration Disorder but has been changed to better explain the disorder. To understand SPD, you first have to understand what sensory integration is. Essentially, at any one time our brains are being bombarded by external stimuli from our senses. There are multiple sounds, smells, things to see, feel, etc at any one time. Our brains sort through this information and tune out the non-essential stimuli (ie: background noise, the feel of the air blowing from the heater vents, the feel of our clothes on our back, etc) and pay attention to the essential stimuli such as the voice of the person we are speaking with. This is sensory integration.

People with Sensory Processing Disorder have a breakdown in the way the senses are interpreted. Their brains have a difficult time sorting the incoming sensory information. There is almost a traffic jam of sorts. To make things worse, their senses are often heightened. They smell things more strongly, they feel things more deeply, sounds are louder, etc. This combination can cause an overwhelming response physiologically, emotionally, and behaviorally.

Let me give you an example. Imagine you are sitting at your desk in a work setting. You are busy typing away on your PC working on whatever project you've been assigned. As you're typing, there are people all around you doing the exact same things. Your brain tunes out their conversations, the phones ringing at their desks, the sound of the clock ticking. Your body knows where it is in space. You are able to focus on your work. Then a coworker stops by and says hello. Your brain tells you to stop your work, look at the coworker, and respond.

A person with SPD would have a very different experience. It would be nearly impossible to tune out the constant conversation around the office and the ringing telephones. The ticking of the clock would sound extremely loud. The tag on their shirt may bother them to the point that they have to cut it out. They may feel the air blowing from the vents to the point of discomfort. They may smell someone's lunch from across the office and gag because it smells too strongly. Their brain may not "remember" where their body is, so they feel the need to constantly fidget and wiggle in their chair. When a coworker stops by to say hello, they may not even notice because their brain is being so bombarded with stimuli that it doesn't know how to respond.

Stanley Greenspan, the author of "The Challenging Child" (1995) described what SPD feels like this way:

"Imagine driving a car that isn't working well. When you step on the gas the car sometimes lurches forward and sometimes doesn't respond. When you blow the horn it sounds blaring. The brakes sometimes slow the car, but not always. The blinkers work occasionally, the steering is erratic, and the speedometer is inaccurate. You are engaged in a constant struggle to keep the car on the road, and it is difficult to concentrate on anything else."

Doesn't sound very fun, does it?

The problem is that a huge part of the population has never even heard of Sensory Processing Disorder. There are physicians that don't even know anything about it! But unless you understand what it is, it's hard to be tolerant of the idiosyncrasies that a person with SPD exhibits.

Whew. That was a long explanation. I guess I'll leave you with that for now. I'll come back another day to talk about some of the symptoms of SPD. I'll also start sharing stories about how SPD effects my child, how I deal with some of the behaviors, and I how I try to cope day to day with this frustrating, misunderstood disorder.

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