October is Sensory Awareness Month. Sensory processing disorder is becoming a more well-known diagnosis among children, those on and off of the autism spectrum. The label is still not recognized by many medical professionals, but I can tell you that SPD exists. As a chiropractor, I work with many children (and adults) who struggle with processing their emotions. That is what SPD comes down to: sensory triggers that cause a spiral of emotions in which the individual cannot control.
Sensory Processing Disorder in simple terms is a misinterpretation of sensory information. We have 5 main senses: touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight. While any of these senses can become overwhelmed within the brain, an SPD child cannot figure out how to let go of the situation. The proprioceptive and vestibular systems play a huge role in regulating the incoming sensory information. The vestibular system is located from the base of the brain to the upper neck and inner ear. The proprioceptive system calls the entire spine and joints of the body home. This is why, when a sensory child is caught in an episode, he may seem to be in pain. His joints may hurt. His ears may ring. He may feel itchy like his skin is crawling. Even when not triggered, a child with SPD may feel constantly ‘off.’ They may not actually know ‘normal.’ This is why so many children may be misdiagnosed with ADD, ADHD, learning disabilities, etc.
A sensory child does not fit in a mold. A few common signs parents notice (this is not an exhaustive list by any means) include:
- Not handling things such as loud noises, being dirty, getting wet, wearing structured clothing, wearing loose clothing, wearing tight clothing, bright light, crowded spaces, having hair washed/brushed, getting fingernails or toenails cut, receiving an unexpected hug; walking barefoot, wearing shoes, getting buckled, or certain textures.
- Doesn’t notice when touched; almost always prefers sedentary activities to active ones; seems unaware of bodily sensations such as heat, cold, or hunger
- Needs to be touching someone, something, or everything he passes. Hugs too strongly and doesn’t know his own strength.
- Dislikes foods with certain textures.
- Cannot be anywhere without his primary caregiver.
- Often struggles with speech.
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
- Is passive, quiet, slow to respond to directions.
- Is excessively cautious and afraid to try new things.
- Is upset by transitions or unexpected changes.
- Avoids group activities.
- Wants to spin, slide or swing excessiely, and is constantly moving.
- Is accident-prone and has difficulty with physical skills such as catching a ball.
Children with SPD experience their meltdowns due to one of three reasons:
- The brain not receiving messages due to a disconnection in the nerve cells
- Sensory messages received inconsistently
- Sensory messages received consistently, but not connecting properly with other sensory messages.
Enabling a functioning vestibular and proprioceptive systems are key to aiding a healthy sensory connection. Vertebral subluxations (misalignments) of the spine may cause a disconnect between the brain and these sensory systems. An irritation can cause this misalignments – birth position, birth trauma, a fall, stress, etc. Chiropractic care removes neurological imbalances by realigning the spine. Within weeks of proper adjustments, a SPD child’s spine may begin to heal. Improvements with sensory triggers should occur, meaning the meltdowns should improve quite a bit. Motor skills, social skills, even speech may see vast improvements throughout chiropractic care.
Along with seeing a chiropractor, a diet free of processed foods, dyes, and gluten will greatly benefit a child suffering with sensory processing disorder. There may be more specific foods that a child reacts to, and an elimination diet (such as the Feingold diet) can help pinpoint the exact triggers.
It is not easy parenting a child with sensory processing disorder. Many pass judgement and try to blame the behavior on parenting styles of lifestyle choices, but the truth is that SPD is real. Occupational therapy, chiropractic care, dietary and lifestyle changes will all improve a family’s daily happiness.