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Research: Review of Literature

By Sarah A. Schoen, PhD, OTR
Assistant Director of Research, SPD Foundation
Clinical Services Advisor, STAR (Sensory Therapies And Research) Center

What does the literature say about the effect of difficulties in processing sensory information on the daily lives of children and adolescents?

A systematic review of performance deficits in children and adolescents with difficulties processing sensory information was published in the May/June 2010 issue of AJOT. The following is a summary of the review paper.

Thirty-five studies were reviewed, examining occupational performance in four areas:

  1. Play, leisure and social participation
  2. Activities of daily living
  3. Rest and sleep
  4. Education, transition and work

Of the thirty-five reviewed, seventeen studies reported on performance difficulties in the area of play, leisure and social participation. In general, these studies suggest that children with sensory processing difficulties had poor play skills and decreased social participation. In a study of children with high functioning autism, sensory over-responsivity was associated with the poorest social performance. Children with developmental coordination disorder also tended to have social problems. These children spent more time alone, were more often onlookers of play and reported greater amounts of loneliness.

Nine studies reported deficits in activities of daily living, including eating, dressing, grooming and hygiene. Individuals with atypical scores on the Sensory Profile, or those diagnosed with DCD, tended to have greater difficulty in the motor aspects of daily living tasks. Further case study data describes individuals with tactile over-responsivity as refusing or avoiding dressing activities, tooth brushing, hair and face washing and hair combing. Those with taste over-responsivity had more restricted food preferences.

Only one study described a relationship between sensory processing difficulties and sleep disturbances. In particular, both sensory over-responsivity and sensory seeking/craving were associated with more sleep problems.

Seven studies related to education and work were reviewed. These studies suggest that children and adolescents with sensory processing difficulties had lower levels of academic achievement and were at greater risk for learning disabilities. Studies included children with fragile x syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, dyspraxia and developmental coordination disorder.

Results of this evidence review indicate that children and adolescents with sensory processing difficulties do display difficulties in many areas of participation. Clinicians need to be aware of participation deficits to insure interventions are directed towards all aspects of daily life. Clearly, greater research is needed to differentiate the strengths and weaknesses within and between various clinical groups (i.e. DCD vs. autism) as well as amongst SPD subtypes (i.e. sensory modulation disorder vs. sensory-based motor disorder).

Koenig, K. P., & Rudney, S. G. (2010). Performance challenges for children and adolescents with difficulty processing and integration sensory information: A systematic review. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 64, 430-442.











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