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What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

Is Sensory Processing Disorder different from Dysfunction of Sensory Integration?

Is there proof that SPD is real?

How is Sensory Processing Disorder treated?

What evidence is there that occupational therapy is an effective intervention for SPD?

How can I find an occupational therapist to work with my child?

Are children with SPD entitled to therapy in the schools?

How can I find a doctor or dentist who is aware of sensory processing issues?

How can I meet other parents of children with Sensory Processing Disorder?

Are there any classes or workshops I can attend to learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder? Are there any that I can recommend to the teachers at my child's school?

Can children who have autistic spectrum disorders also have Sensory Processing Disorder?

How can I help my child to adapt to his sensory issues while at home?

Can you suggest some books or other materials I can read on Sensory Processing Disorder?

Q. What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

A: Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a complex disorder of the brain that affects developing children and adults who were not treated in childhood. Children with SPD misinterpret everyday sensory information, such as touch, sound, and movement. Some feel bombarded by sensory information; others seek out intense sensory experiences or have other problems. This can lead to behavioral problems, difficulties with coordination, and other issues.

Symptoms of SPD, like those of most disorders, occur within a broad spectrum of severity. While most of us have occasional difficulties processing sensory information, for children and adults with SPD, these difficulties are chronic, and they disrupt everyday life. Click here to read about SPD Red Flags. (http://www.spdfoundation.net/redflags).

There are several types of Sensory Processing Disorder, and each one may result in a number of different behavioral and sensory patterns. Click here to learn more about the Defining SPD and its subtypes. (http://www.spdfoundation.net/subtypes).

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Q: Is Sensory Processing Disorder different from "dysfunction of sensory integration" or "sensory integration dysfunction"?

A: No. Sensory Processing Disorder is a new term that health care professionals are now using to describe dysfunction of sensory integration/sensory integration function. Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD is an umbrella term for several distinct forms of sensory processing issues. Read more about the types of SPD in Defining SPD and its subtypes. (http://www.spdfoundation.net/subtypes).

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Q: Is there proof that SPD is real?

A: Following a hiatus after sensory pioneer Dr. A. Jean Ayres died in 1988, research into SPD has recently entered a massive growth phase. The sensory processing abilities of hundreds of children are being tested in multiple laboratories, providing the replicate data that are the cornerstone of scientific credibility. Research scientists from numerous, diverse disciplines are conducting primate studies, rat studies, anatomic studies, electroencephalographic, and other psychophysiological studies, plus studies of twins, other familial studies, and more. Results are being reported in refereed professional journals where research must meet exacting standards to be published.

Scientists are hard at work on questions such as these:

  • What's going on in the brains of these children?
  • How is SPD similar and different from other disorders
  • What does SPD look like
  • Does treatment work?
  • How many people have SPD?
  • Where does SPD come from?
  • Is heredity a factor?

Click Ten Fundamental Facts about SPD to see a summary list of some findings. Clinical reports on specific topics can be found in Our Library.

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Q: How is Sensory Processing Disorder treated?

A: SPD is typically treated with a program of occupational therapy (OT) conducted in a sensory-rich environment. Appropriate OT can change the neurological functioning in children with SPD so they can manage their responses to sensations and behave in a more functional manner. Successful OT enables them to take part in the normal activities of childhood such as playing with friends, enjoying school, eating, dressing, and sleeping. Therapy can take place in a hospital OT department or in a private practice setting. The most effective treatment is tailored to the needs of the individual child. Read more about occupational therapy in Treatment for SPD.

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Q: What evidence is there that occupational therapy "works" for treating SPD?

A: The American Journal of Occupational Therapy in March-April 2007 published the first research study ever to evaluate the outcome of occupational therapy with a sensory integration approach (OT-SI) that met all four criteria of a randomized control trial (RCT). This study was the culmination of ten years of research by the SPD Foundation and addressed the methodological limitations of the estimated 80 previous studies of treatment effectiveness.

The question posed by the trial: Is OT-SI effective in ameliorating the difficulties of children with Sensory Over-Responsivity compared to a placebo treatment and no treatment (a comparison of three groups). Children in the OT-SI group received OT with a sensory integration approach twice a week for 10 weeks. The treatment was "manualized" (based on a written manual) using principles proposed by Dr. A. Jean Ayres, who first identified sensory integration dysfunction (now called SPD).

The results: Compared with children who received an alternative treatment or no treatment at all, children with Sensory Over-Responsivity who received OT-SI made statistically significant improvements on several key measures including cognitive and social measures and parent priorities for changes.

The study group was small – 24 children – so caution is required in interpreting the results. Even so, the research represents a landmark as the first scientifically rigorous study of the effectiveness of OT-SI, and the results are promising for helping children with sensory challenges.

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Q. How can I find an occupational therapist to work with my child?

A: A good place to start is in Find Service Providers, the SPD Foundation's one-of-a-kind online national directory of health care, educational, and community resources experienced in working with children who have SPD and other special needs. Many occupational therapists who have experience in working with Sensory Processing Disorder have registered with the directory; searching for one near you is very easy.

Also take a look at How to Find an Occupational Therapist for ideas on how to find a professional with the credentials and experience most likely to lead to effective therapy for your child.

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Q: Are children entitled to Sensory Processing Disorder therapy in school by law?

A: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees a free and appropriate public education with peers, to the maximum extent appropriate, to all eligible children with disabilities (ages 3-21) who need special education and related services in order to learn in school. Children with disabilities can receive occupational therapy (OT) if they qualify for special education. In addition, a school team, including the parents, must decide if the therapy is necessary. (Some school districts will provide OT in other instances, e.g., to give teachers suggestions before referring a child to special education, called a pre-referral.)

There are no provisions in state or federal law that specify how OT, once recommended by the team, must be provided. This includes the service model, frequency of intervention, and the frame of reference.

In due process hearings and the courts, the issue of theory base or frame of reference has been referred to as a methodology decision. One of the latest court decisions regarding methodology centered around individual instruction for a student with dyslexia using the Ortho-Gillingham method (E.S. v. Independent Sch. Dist. No. 196). The district court disallowed the parent's request for this kind of reading instruction, stating that schools have discretion over methodology decisions as long as the program provides a free and appropriate public education. 

Therapists who recommend school-based sensory integration therapy must show how the student needs this kind of occupational therapy in order to benefit from participation in the curriculum and specific school activities. Important issues to address (in jargon-free language) include: 

  • The student's performance levels in educationally relevant areas
  • How OT services using sensory integration would support team goals
  • The specific instructional methods and materials (including those based on sensory integration principles) needed to assist the student in reaching specified educational goals

More information about the schools and SPD is located in Our Library.

Sources

  • AOTA (1997). OT services for children and youth under the IDEA. Bethesda MD.
  • AOTA (1997). Statement-Sensory integration evaluation and intervention in school-based occupational therapy. Bethesda MD. (Available from FAX-on-Request from the AOTA National Office, 800-701-7735, document #903)
  • E.S. v. Independent Sch. Dist. No.196, 27 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Law Review 503, 96-4214, 8th Cir. 1998.

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Q: How can I find a doctor or dentist who is aware of sensory processing issues?

A: The best place to start is in Find Service Providers, the SPD Foundation's one-of-a-kind online national directory of health care, educational, and community resources experienced in working with children who have SPD and other special needs. Many doctors and other health care professionals have registered with the directory.

Another idea is to join a support group for parents and ask for recommendations from others in the group. See SPD Parent Connections for a list of support groups across the country and in some international locations.

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Q: How can I meet other parents of children with Sensory Processing Disorder?

A: SPD Parent Connections, sponsored by the SPD Foundation, is a network of local support groups for parents from coast to coast. Check out the list of local groups at SPD Parent Connections Groups — United States.

Another option is to find an online support group. Try and Topica for some active listserves. You can locate groups by searching under terms such as "sensory processing," "sensory integration," "SPD," or "DSI".

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Q: Are there any classes or workshops I can attend to learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder? Are there any that I can recommend to the teachers at my child's school?

A: The most economical, accessible source of SPD education for parents and teachers are online e-Learning classes from the SPD Foundation. SPD University is unlike any other educational program about Sensory Processing Disorder. The unique environment was created specifically for web-based education. Classes are taught and vividly illustrated by sensory experts with decades of experience in resedarching, assessing, and treating SPD. SPD University is accessible 24/7.

In addition to e-Learning, the SPD Foundation sponsors International Symposiums throughout the United States. These are designed for parents, teachers, and therapists and provide two intensive days of learning opportunities.

Visit our Education page and our Events page for a complete list of educational opportunities.

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Q: Can children who have an autistic spectrum disorder also have Sensory Processing Disorder?

A: A. Jean Ayres, PhD, OTR, who developed sensory integration theory and therapy, and another well-known occupational therapist, Lorna Jean King, believe that many children with autism also have Sensory Processing Disorder. The presence of SPD, they believe, contributes to many of the behavioral and learning problems experienced by children with autistic spectrum disorders, such as over- or under-reactivity to sensations and problems in making sense of auditory and visual input to understand and use language. Pilot research by the SPD Foundation indicates that as many as 80% of children with autism also have SPD. (The reverse is not true.)

To learn more about autism and Sensory Processing Disorder, visit . You may also want to read some of Temple Grandin's books. Dr. Grandin has a type of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome and also has sensory and perceptual disorders. She has earned a PhD in animal science and is one of the world's foremost experts in the design and construction of livestock facilities. She believes her diagnosis is also a gift, giving her an extraordinary ability to visualize events and interactions in her mind. In her books she describes how she learned to accommodate to the "regular" world. You can find her books at Amazon.com: "Autism: Handle with Care!" and "Thinking in Pictures."

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Q: How can I help my child adapt to his sensory issues while at home?

A: Our colleague Heather Miller-Kuhaneck, MS, OTR/L, BCP, has written an excellent article on what parents can do at home to help their children. You can read Heather's suggestions at Home Activities for Children with Sensory Integration Problems. If you order Heather's book on autism after clicking through to amazon.com from this site, the SPD Foundation will receive a portion of your purchase.

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Q: Can you suggest some books or other materials I can read on Sensory Processing Disorder?

A: Lucy Jane Miller, PhD, OTR, founder and executive director of SPD Foundation, has written a groundbreaking book for parents, teachers, and health care providers. Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder has been called by reviewers "every parent's 'go-to' book for questions about their child's sensory development issues." The book describes and provides strategies for children with the major subtypes of SPD and also details the latest research on SPD. No Longer a SECRET: Unique Common Sense Strategies for Children with Sensory or Motor Challenges is the newest resource for parents, teachers and therapists, helping children with sensory or motor issues. Includes cost-effective, functional, on the spot tips to use for children with sensory issues at home, at school or in a community setting.

You will find additional materials – activity books, books for teachers, textbooks, sensory products, music, CDs, and videotapes – under Books.

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