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What is Sensory Modulation Disorder?

January 22, 2024

Our understanding of the senses tends to be limited to the basic five ingrained in early education. It’s not just about perception. Our senses shape who we are. Sensory processing influences our reactions, interactions, and overall life experiences. Conditions like sensory modulation disorder demand recognition when talking about sensory processing.

Ignoring sensory issues, especially in children, prolongs their silent struggles. This becomes even more crucial for those dealing with both autism and sensory modulation disorder, as communication difficulties worsen the challenge of expressing discomfort amid overwhelming sensory experiences.

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What is Sensory Modulation Disorder?

You may be wondering – what’s the definition of modulation? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, modulation is concerned with regulating according to measure or proportion.

Those with sensory impairments struggle with regulation, and their reaction to sensory stimuli is often not in proportion to the measure of sensory input or stimuli received.

A recent study described sensory modulation as the ability to control and organize reactions to sensory input in a flexible way. This helps individuals maintain an optimal performance level and adapt to daily challenges.

Researchers define sensory modulation as a two-step process. It begins in the central nervous system, where it regulates and processes sensory stimuli. This, in turn, enables individuals to respond behaviorally to the stimuli.

So, what is sensory modulation disorder? Looking at these explanations, we see a picture of sensory modulation disorder emerging, where an individual may have difficulty regulating and organizing appropriate responses to sensory input.

They might react strongly or, on the other hand, show a minimal response. Additionally, dealing with stimuli can be challenging for those with sensory modulation issues.

Is There a Difference Between Sensory Modulation Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder?

To many, the term sensory modulation disorder may not be as familiar as the more frequently used sensory processing disorder (SPD). Sensory modulation disorder (SMD) is actually a subtype of SPD.

This condition manifests as a type of sensory processing impairment where an individual has difficulty regulating their responses to sensory input.

Sensory processing disorder can be divided into three further categories, according to response to stimuli displayed by the individual:

  1. Sensory over-responsiveness – Characterized by strong reactions to things others find normal, like intense responses to clothing tags or food textures, often seen in children on the spectrum. 
  2. Sensory under-responsiveness – Some individuals might respond slowly or react less to stimuli, appearing lethargic or withdrawn compared to their peers.
  3. Craving sensory input –  Seeking sensory input is a way to gather feedback, distinct from under-responsiveness. In autism, it might result in compulsive spinning, for example.

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Not everyone agrees with the various terms used to describe sensory processing and integration conditions. These terms are used according to preference and how and where the therapist was trained.

Sometimes, SMD is referred to as sensory reactivity. Despite using different terms, most experts agree that sensory modulation deficits impact how well children adjust their responses to the sensory stimuli in their environment.

Sensory Modulation Disorder in Children with Autism

Many researchers have mused about the precise impact of sensory processing impairments on symptoms and severity of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

For example, suppose a child is highly sensitive to auditory and tactile input, to a degree where most people and social situations are avoided. What will the impact be on language learning?

The child’s language abilities may develop differently without opportunities to observe and participate in various social communication scenarios. Whether language learning deficits are aggravated by autism, sensory modulation disorder, or other circumstances is debatable.

We do know that almost every child on the spectrum has some sort of sensory processing difficulty or difference. What would happen if these sensory differences were considered to restructure learning and social environments?

Would a child with SMD, particularly sensory over-responsiveness, learn and communicate better in an environment where sensory input is muted to their preference? How would a different, more suitable environment affect learning and development?

The Effect of SMD on an Autistic Child’s Daily Life

Autism affects communication, social interaction, and daily living. Sensory modulation, or how we react to sensory stimuli, may influence all these factors, too.

A 2010 research study suggests that children with severe sensory modulation disorder (SMD) may show distinct physiological activity compared to those without SMD. The behavioral aspects of SMD could affect a child’s everyday life.

Both autism and SMD may negatively affect a child’s life. Parents with children on the spectrum often advocate for studies to show how addressing sensory difficulties may influence the severity of symptoms associated with autism.

Parents also share that changing or fixing the world to make it a “softer” sensory environment would mean society can stop their attempts to fix autistic children. In the right circumstances, many on the spectrum would thrive.

The Effect of Sensory Modulation Disorder on an Autistic Child’s Daily Life
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/sensory-modulation-autism/

Sensory Modulation Disorder in Adults

Adults who have sensory processing disorder (SPD) often don’t realize its symptoms until later in life, even though the issues typically start in childhood. At home and work, they may perceive the world differently, feeling numb or overwhelmed by sounds, sights, tastes, and smells.

Common symptoms of sensory modulation disorder in adults include:

  • discomfort with hugs,
  • sensitivity to smells or tastes,
  • clothing preferences for certain materials,
  • restlessness during storms,
  • annoyance at loud noises,
  • discomfort in crowded spaces, and more. 

Depending on the severity, SPD can impact relationships and work performance, causing challenges in social and professional settings. Some may experience difficulties with public speaking or providing desired physical intimacy in romantic relationships.

An Inside Perspective on Sensory Modulation Issues

Research and clinical studies may educate us about the biological factors involved in sensory modulation. But how do children feel when their bodies over (or under) react to sensory stimuli that their peers seem almost oblivious to?

Parents often share stories of the daily pain experienced by their children on the spectrum, whose brains were not wired to process the overwhelming world they live in.

I realized the extent of the effect of sensory processing difficulties when speaking to an autism advocate, Katrina Hayes, from SpeakUp, during a session for the Autism Parenting Summit (September 2021).

She shared her story of taking her autistic son for his COVID-19 shot. Advocating the medical staff to make her son comfortable, extensive preparation with visuals before the appointment, and sensory toys brought along for comfort. Her son’s aversion to needles still proved too much.

Getting a shot may be a little uncomfortable for most older children. However, the sensation and all the surrounding sensory stimuli of going to the doctor may be too much for many kids on the spectrum. Interestingly, research also suggests abnormal pain perceptions in children and adults with SMD.

Talking to adults on the spectrum allows us to glimpse the overwhelming and sometimes painful reality of sensory over-reactivity.

I asked YouTuber and influencer Daniel Morgan Jones (The Aspie World) about sensory overload. Daniel was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 26 and shares content on various platforms focusing on understanding and learning about autism.

He tried to make the feelings of those on the spectrum more accessible by comparing it to trying to read a book, giving everything to try and focus, but someone tries to pull the book out of your hands.

Simultaneously, he continued, another person is screaming in your left ear, and yet another is blasting music in your right ear. The overwhelm is palpable from his vivid description. Imagine a child struggling to respond to the environment when their sensory system doesn’t cooperate.

Sensory Modulation Therapy and Solutions

Acknowledging that your child may face daily challenges because their nervous system processes sensory stimuli differently is only the beginning. You may need the help of an occupational therapist to address your child’s unique sensory processing challenges.

Occupational therapy for sensory modulation is a great way to evaluate your child and formulate strategies to address the particular sensory needs of your child.

If your child is willing, involve them in these strategies by having them identify their preferred level of arousal. If they require complete silence for concentration, noise-canceling headphones can be beneficial.

You may feel your child’s bedroom is quiet. Still, even the ticking clock downstairs could make it hard for someone sensitive to sounds to concentrate.

If the arousal level is too low, on the other hand, your child may appear lethargic. Sometimes crunchy snacks or fidget toys are needed to provide enough sensory stimulation or input for your child to participate.

Download your FREE guide on 

Sensory Processing Disorder The Ultimate Guide

Life With Sensory Processing Difficulties

Living with sensory processing difficulties unfortunately means many of our children are simply withdrawing from a world they find bewildering. Add sensory processing differences to an autism spectrum disorder, and bewildering may be too mild a term.

Fortunately, an occupational or physical therapist trained in sensory integration therapy may be able to help children with strategies not only to cope but hopefully thrive.

FAQs:

Q: How is sensory processing disorder diagnosed?

A: Diagnosing SPD is tricky as it’s not recognized in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual edition. The primary therapy is sensory integration therapy, which is part of occupational therapy, but experts debate its evidence-based status.

Q: What are the symptoms of sensory modulation disorder?

A: Symptoms of Sensory Modulation Disorder include heightened reactions to stimuli like loud noises and aggression to touch, as well as reduced responsiveness to pain and a strong craving for movement stimulation.

Q: What is sensory modulation in adults?

A: In adults, Sensory Modulation Disorder can manifest as difficulties in regulating responses to sensory stimuli. This may include heightened sensitivities or reduced responsiveness to various sensory experiences, impacting daily functioning and well-being.

Q: What are sensory modulation strategies?

A: Sensory modulation strategies are techniques or approaches used to help individuals regulate and manage their responses to sensory stimuli. These strategies aim to promote a balanced and adaptive interaction with the surrounding environment.

Q: Is sensory modulation disorder a form of autism?

A:  While sensory modulation challenges are common in autism, they can also be present in other conditions.

References:

An ecological model of sensory integration: performance of children with fragile X syndrome, autistic disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and sensory modulation dysfunction
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304716933_An_ecological_model_of_sensory_integration_performance_of_children_with_fragile_X_syndrome_autistic_disorder_attention-deficithyperactivity_disorder_and_sensory_modulation_dysfunction

Defining sensory modulation: A review of the concept and a contemporary definition for application by occupational therapists
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329131191_Defining_sensory_modulation_A_review_of_the_concept_and_a_contemporary_definition_for_application_by_occupational_therapists

Sensory Processing Issues and Their Association with Social Difficulties in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
https://www.mdpi.com/2077-0383/8/10/1508

Language acquisition in autism spectrum disorders: A developmental review
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1750946710001327

Assessing Sensory Processing Dysfunction in Adults and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Scoping Review
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5575628/

Evolution of the sensory integration frame of reference
https://jdc.jefferson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1026&context=otfp

Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD) and Pain: A New Perspective
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31379526/

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