Here are some of the most common questions I hear when discussing a child’s sensory processing skills with their parent:
“Is he going to be OK?”
“Will he make a full recovery?”
“Will he eventually just grow out of it?”
“Is OT the cure?”
These parents are all essentially asking the same question: Are we going to “cure” their child’s sensory processing disorder?
Short answer: “Kind of…”
Long answer: Keep reading.
Here’s the thing- we ALL have sensory preferences. I can’t stand dry sand under my fingernails and I happen to be highly distracted by auditory input.
But do I have sensory processing disorder?
Not so much.
And how do I tell the difference between a sensory preference and SPD?
Sensory processing disorder interferes with daily functioning.
Any other questions I want to ask myself?
Eh, not right now.
So sure, I love the beach, but I’m probably not going to dig a sand castle with my bare hands. I also know that if I want to read a book or type a report, I either have to have complete silence or listen to a white noise app on my phone. With these simple strategies I can adapt to be a (somewhat) typically functioning adult.
However, what about the child that can’t sit still in their chair because they crave vestibular input? They might be missing out on fine motor skill development because they aren’t appropriately participating in school work.
What about the child that can’t stand the touch of a tag in their shirt? Refusing to wear clothing can make it kind of challenging to get out the door in the morning and participate in life.
Another issue that makes sensory processing disorder different is that I know that I can’t sit still at a conference for 8 hours straight. I bop my leg up and down or I chew gum to keep myself alert. A child doesn’t always have the reasoning skills to say, “Hmm, I had better just chew some gum rather than bite through my neighbor’s pencil.” Their nervous system is driving them to find the input they need, and they might not know the most appropriate or effective strategies to use.
That’s the point when OT comes in handy. We teach children and parents the strategies that are most effective. Essentially, how to get the most “bang for your buck” when it comes to sensory input. A child that pings around from activity to activity might just need some assistance to choose something more appropriate, and stick with it long enough to receive the benefit of the input.
Now, say that OT teaches the child what they need to know, and the parents follow through with appropriate sensory activities at home. Does this mean the child will be “cured”? Not essentially. It means that they will have more control over their bodies. We are working with the idea that the brain is “plastic”, meaning it can change and make new connections. The theory behind sensory integration supports the hope that the nervous system will become better able to handle and modulate sensory input to the point that a child can function appropriately.
However, will a child that is extremely under-responsive to movement input choose a desk job when he grows up? Probably not. This is the child that might choose snowboarding as a hobby, or something that provides the input he still craves. Or on the other side of things, a child that is sensitive to most input is probably not going to pick a job in a factory with a lot of loud, unpredictable noises.
So throw the words “cure” or “fix” out of your vocabulary when it comes to sensory processing disorder, and think more along the lines of “adapting”. Hopefully a child’s sensory processing disorder becomes manageable sensory preferences that allow them to lead their lives the way they want.