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Why the Wave? Explaining Sensory Processing Disorder

7 min read


Why the Wave? A wave is such a great explanation of sensory processing disorder. So it is obvious that we decided to make it a part of our logo. After all, Sensory Mart is all about helping raise awareness and provide resources and products for children and adults with sensory processing disorder. Not sure what sensory processing disorder is? Well, let’s start with explaining sensory processing….

Sensory Processing is information our body takes in from all the senses around us, our brain processing it, which then tells our body how to act accordingly.  There are eight main senses that is processed: Sight, Sound, Taste, Touch, Smell, Vestibular, Proprioceptive, and Interoceptive.

The five senses we all know well (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell), are what’s called our Environmental Senses, where everybody who is around us also experiences the same senses and understands what it feels like. Example, if you hear a loud noise, everybody hears it; if you see a squirrel, everyone sees that squirrel. Our nervous system tells us what to do about the 5 environmental senses.

The other three senses (vestibular, proprioceptive, and interceptive), are our Internal Senses where it is more private (compared to the Environmental Senses), and no one can know what it feels like except to that individual person.

Vestibular sense happens in our inner ear where we take in sensations about gravity and where our body is in space. Every time we move our head we are activating the vestibular sense.

Proprioceptive sense receptors are in our muscles and joints. It activates when we flex and extend our arms and legs. We use this sense to help our bodies move and (when working correctly) we can walk and get dressed without having to put much thought to it.  Interoceptive sense receptors are in our internal organs. It is used for us to know when we are hungry, when to use the restroom, and when we are full.

All eight senses develop naturally starting from birth.  When a child has reached kindergarten years, his/her sensory processing has developed enough that he or she is able to learn. However if the sensory processing is not working as it should, a “sensory development delay” can cause many behavioral and learning difficulties.

Sensory Processing is the foundation of every aspect of human functioning around us. These senses are integrated inside us so we can form a complete understanding of who we are, where we are, and what is happening around us.  As we grow and mature, our sensory processing skills mature, vital pathways in the nervous system strengthen, making children get better at handling everyday life challenges.  Everyone has sensory processing, because it is needed to survive. 

In typical people, there are filters in place that your brain has to make sure the right amount of information gets through at one time.  However, people with “sensory processing issues” cannot rely on their senses to give them the necessary information on what is going on around them. They can’t get an accurate picture of the world so it makes it difficult for them to know how to respond or behave in certain situations. Example, if too much information comes in at once, it will become overwhelming (sometimes referred to as over-stimulated or hypersensitivity). If too little comes in, that person will be extremely under-stimulated (also known as hyposensitivity). This can lead to isolation from social functions and inability to learn or focus in a classroom. Sometimes this type of processing of information can be disabling. It can cause pain, it can mean that parts of the body is working “out of sync” with others or slower than the person might like. Often it can be difficult to discriminate exactly what the information is.

These people who experience over-stimulation or under-stimulation might have some sort of Sensory Processing Disorder. 

Here is a great visual to help to understand sensory processing disorder. Imagine that each of the eight senses described earlier represent a boat, each traveling in the ocean. In typical sensory processing, the "sensory profile" of a person would look like the boats in a flat, calm ocean, each lined up side by side traveling the same speed because the senses the individual is processing are generally fairly balanced. The boats are generally parallel because all of the senses are working together coherently. That process of information flow tends to be balanced and controlled in typical sensory processing. When the world around us is processed accordingly in this type of "sensory profile", the person is not affected in any way, moving through life unaware they even have sensory processing continuously working for them.

However a person with SPD, their sensory profile is quite different. Each of the eight boats are dealing with rough waters and high waves. The processing speed of each boat is not the same. Some are way ahead, and others are lagging behind. With a person experiencing this type of scenario on a consistent basis, there is no question learning in school and behaviors are affected.  

SPD has had many different titles and labels of this in the past, but now it is commonly known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) as awareness of this is increasing.

Other titles and labels that have been used in the past (and you may still hear from people) are “Sensory Integration Dysfunction”, “Sensory Modulation Disorder”, and “Dysfunction of Sensory Integration”. The main thing to know is changing the title does not change what people with SPD struggle with on a daily basis.

Many children with undiagnosed SPD can be mislabeled as disruptive, anxious, uncooperative, belligerent, clumsy, or just “out of control”.  

Unfortunately, parents are sometimes the blame for their child’s behavior from people who do not understand this "hidden handicap". I personally experienced this as a young mother. I remember crying to my children’s pediatrician wanting answers to why it was difficult to get my daughters out of the house without meltdowns. With no explanation, I was handed a book on how to discipline.  I now have been blessed with answers. I now realize my daughters’ brains had a sensory development delay due to being premature. Therefore, they did not have the filters needed for all the stimulation that was coming at them at once, causing outbursts and meltdowns wherever we went. They were severely over-stimulated to the point of being debilitating.

No two people with sensory processing disorder are the same, therefore there is no cookie-cutter therapy to help these people function.

For example, all three of my children have SPD in different ways, causing different reactions and behaviors in different situations. This can be very overwhelming for a parent, which is why it’s important to have an Occupational Therapist (OTR) do a thorough sensory evaluation.

It is very important that the world understands sensory processing disorder so that individuals can be correctly diagnosed and treated as early in life as possible.

When no diagnosis occurs, these children do not receive the treatment needed to understand their bodies and thrive. They struggle in life, often feeling very out of place with an out of control body, and unable to handle daily life activities. My two daughters did not receive therapy until their late elementary years. My son, however immediately received therapy since age two and continues to receive accommodations in school. I do see a difference with age-related diagnosis. The sooner sensory processing disorder is diagnosed the better, however, it is never too late

The best way to know if your child or loved one has some sort of Sensory Processing Disorder is by having them evaluated by an Occupational Therapist (OT) who specializes in Sensory Integration (SI). Here are some resources for you to find a local OTSI in your area:

Your local early intervention program if your child is under age three

Your local school district if your child is three or older

Private, nonprofit mental health and social service organizations

A multidisciplinary teaching hospital for a full evaluation

The Occupational Therapy Department of your local children’s hospital which posts a free, online directory of local OTs and other experts which offers a directory for a small fee

So what is the best therapy for SPD?

An Occupational Therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorder can provide individual “Sensory Diets”, which is a term used for therapy.  The “diet” really stands for an activity or exercise that is “something provided or experienced repeatedly”…not something we eat as what we usually think when hear the word diet.

The best definition on Sensory Diet comes from the book, “The Out-of-Sync Child” by Carol Stock Kranowitz, MA. She states in her book a “Sensory Diet” is a “planned and scheduled activity program that a therapist develops to meet the needs of a specific child’s nervous system. Its purpose is to help the child become better regulated and more focused, adaptable, and skillful.” 

a daily sensory diet fulfills the tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive nourishment a child with SPD needs but does not know how to get on their own. It includes a combination of altering, organizing, and calming activities.

Examples of alerting activities: Crunching dry cereal, popcorn, chips, crackers nuts, pretzels, carrots, celery, apples, or ice cubes; taking a shower; bounding on a therapy ball or beach ball; jumping up and down on a mattress or tampoline.

Examples of Organizing activities: chewing granola bars, fruit bars, licorice, dried apricots, cheese, gum, bagels, or bread crusts; hanging by the hands from a chinning bar; pushing or pulling heavy loads; getting into an upside-down position.

Examples of Calming activities:  sucking a pacifier, hard candy, frozen fruit bar, or spoonful of peanut butter; pushing against walls with the hands, shoulders, back, buttocks, and head; rocking, swaying, or swinging slowly to and fro; cuddling or back rubbing; taking a bath.

So back to the title of this blog....Why the Wave?

Remember the visualization I gave earlier about eight boats, each representing the eight senses? The waves represent interpret highs and lows for different sensations.  People affected with sensory processing disorder either receive too much of one sensation (over-stimulation), too little (under-stimulation), or both. A wave is a great example of sensory processing disorder.

The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation created their royal blue Awareness Ribbon with light blue waves in the background.  It really helps put a visual with what emotions someone with SPD can go through, such as the "sensory profile" I talked about above with the boats representing the eight senses trying to travel in the ocean of waves of highs and lows.

So what should you do as a parent or loved one with SPD?

There is still much debate as to whether someone “outgrows” sensory processing disorder”. The sensory diet therapy can help make a big change, however it is not necessarily a cure.

The first and most important thing to do if you suspect someone to be going through a sensory processing issue is to have empathy.

Showing empathy and understanding helps the person not feel so alone and out of place in our world. Help them feel they still belong.


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