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Sensory Processing Disorder: A Family-Saving Diagnosis

February 16, 2021


Rebecca shares insight into how occupational therapy has helped support her family and her son through sensory processing disorder.

I was a behavioral intervention specialist for children with autism before becoming a dedicated mother of two—and I still couldn’t get a grip on my bulldozer of a son who could demolish a room or family gathering and leave no survivors. I’m talking wild. Not just difficult in a mischievous, needs discipline kind of a way.

Sensory Processing Disorder: A Family-Saving Diagnosis

He would hang from the curtains and literally pull them down—that’s the kind of wild I’m talking about. Or run into walls until he bloodied his lips wild. Back him in a corner like a caged animal with his eyes darting everywhere and his body vibrating with energy wild. He could not listen. He could not learn…and I had no idea how to help him.

Our family’s train was going off the rails with this mini tornado as conductor. I pleaded our case to the pediatrician—because doctors have all the answers, right? I needed someone to guide me—someone to help me reel this child in. The pediatrician, however, told me Jacob was just “100% boy” and not to compare him to his older sister, so I switched to a new pediatrician.

The new one said, “when you learn how to discipline, Jacob will stop these behaviors.” I then switched to another, and this one finally wrote a speech therapy referral for my babbling three-year-old hardly anyone could understand. The speech therapist was the first person to tell me (this behavioral therapist turned special-needs mom) about sensory processing disorder (SPD) and how occupational therapy (OT) could be our saving grace.

Did you know autism and SPD are related?

Nervous system dysfunction comes in all different shades, and it’s easier to think of the whole gamut as a sliding scale of function. Learning disabilities, attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder (ADD/ADHD), and SPD are on the low end and it slides up to severe autism on the high end.

Through research and working closely with an integrationist and occupational therapist, I learned that ultimately all people with autism have sensory challenges, but some people can have SPD without the other facets of autism. It all depends on where you fall on the sliding scale of function—something I found truly fascinating.

Sensory processing disorder is a malfunction of the sensory system within the nervous system, and it affects how a person’s body takes in information through the senses, processes it in the brain, and puts out a behavioral response to one’s environment.

Typically, a person with SPD can be coined a seeker (hyposensitive) or an avoider (hypersensitive) depending on how his/her body reacts to stimuli. My Jacob was a dominant seeker with some avoider tendencies, but depending on the given day his needs could change and he could experience more hypersensitivity than seeker behaviors. If it wasn’t for this newfound knowledge, I shudder to think of the train wreck waiting up the tracks in our life! Thankfully, there are answers, there are ways to help, and there is hope.


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Finding help and support through occupational therapy

Occupational therapy is a field of intervention tailored to recover developmental deficits and help your child reach his/her full potential.

Jacob’s occupational therapist and professional contributor to our family’s memoir, Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences, stepped onto our battlefield with the sensory-smart toolbox of weapons needed to put my son’s train, and thus our family’s, back on the tracks. Using therapeutic daily activities, she helped Jacob develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and that, coupled with customized biomedical intervention, helped my son reach his full potential and thrive.

At three and a half years old, Jacob’s official assessment using The Sensory Processing Measure—Preschool (SPM-P) scored him in the “Some Problems” range for social participation, balance, and motion scales, and in the “Definite Dysfunction” range on the vision, hearing, touch, body awareness, planning, and ideas scales.

We had therapy sessions two to three times a week with follow up instructions for in-home. He crawled over uneven surfaces and worked puzzles, fixed food, and played games. He practiced dressing and putting on socks and shoes. He did a lot of sensorimotor activities to desensitize his body, improve his coordination, and strengthen motor skills. She also taught us to utilize a sensory diet, where we “fed” his body specific stimulation at certain times to calm and aid focus. The OT also administered specific programs to help develop new neural pathways in his brain so sensory information could be processed more efficiently.

Jacob began to feel pain and temperature—two neurological processes that had always been impaired—during OT administered integrative listening therapies. Jacob’s emotional intelligence also leapt forward as he became aware of the people around him and how his actions affected others during Astronaut Training, another special OT program that targets the visual-auditory-vestibular triad of functioning.

In-house OT Interactive Metronome training furthered the recovery of deficits and skyrocketed progress, academic advancement, and body awareness. Three years of dedicated occupational therapy made the difference in our life, and the sensory “toolbox” of interventions they provided us continues to help him reach his full potential every day, even though we graduated over four years ago.

Your child is worth the battle

I know any kind of intervention strategies can be overwhelming and hard, especially when therapists need parents to carry through intervention at home to be truly successful. When you find the right therapist-client-parent fit, however, the sky is the limit. Anything you do to better the quality of life for your child regarding nervous system dysfunction will increase functionality and yield hard-earned results.

There was one particularly difficult day for us, sometime in the middle of listening therapy, when Jacob’s behaviors were seemingly worsening, so I asked his OT what was happening. I thought life would get easier quickly, but it was like, the more work we did, the more steps backwards we took. I’ll never forget what she said to me:

“It’s like putting together a puzzle. It looks neat in the box, but to see the cohesive picture you have to dump out all the pieces, sort and organize them, and then put them together. When you first dump them out, it’s overwhelming chaos. But, as it comes back together, you can see the picture emerge and, when it’s finished, it is marvellous.”

Are you tired of fighting alone? OTs can take the puzzle that is autism or SPD, reorganize the pieces, and help put them back together, and you can marvel at the final picture—the picture of a child’s potential you knew was in there, just hidden behind the dysfunction. Our family pressed on and kept working toward progress one day at a time, and we reached marvelous. You can, too.

This article was featured in Issue 112 – Understanding Diagnosis & Disorders

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