My early research was in sensitivities. I wasn’t all that interested with allergies, the immune system, and emotions. I was interested in how our 5 senses plus nerves/muscles interact and adapt to our environments, learning, talents, relationships, and mobility. How did our brains process our awareness? Adaptations and conflicts? My interests focused on hyposensitivity (Hyposensitivity to touch and movement refers to low or abnormally decreased sensitivity to motion and sense of touch) and Hypersensitivity (high sensitivity to the environment can be defined as acute physical, mental, and emotional responses to one’s external (environmental, social) stimuli. Highly sensitive people feel and sense things far more strongly than others do). That was a pretty full plate about 30 years ago. Stemming from peers, more sensory research and advanced technologies brought about a new condition affecting children and adults. Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD has opened new scopes of research that in some ways bridge and compete with autism, obsessive-compulsive and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders.
Estimates believe that 1 in 20 may have SPD or 5% of the population as studied. While some may be hypoactive, most studies focus on hyperactive situations that lead to learning disorders and advanced interactive conflicts. ADHD is fairly close at 12.9 percent of men will be diagnosed with ADHD, compared to 4.9 percent of women. ADHD has treatment via prescription pills. Thus far, SPD does not. Hypersensitive behavior in people is found in 15 to 20% of the population. So the focus is justifiable.
There appears to be a tendency, made popular by ADHD and Autistic Spread Spectrum, to cluster unique behaviors in children and adults. SPD is a malfunction of body awareness, perceptions, and related balance. Some kids seem to have trouble handling the information their senses take in—things like sound, touch, taste, sight, and smell. Some of those kids take it to adulthood.
Is it due to behavior? Genetics? Upbringing? Maybe. Few studies have been able to validate or invalidate why SPD develops. Those with Sensory Processing Disorder, sensory information goes into the brain but does not get organized into appropriate responses, according to neuroscience studies. In these ways neuroscience has established how SPD is associated with Autism Spread Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD).
SPD is not one specific disorder, but rather an umbrella term that covers a variety of neurological disabilities. Because the child with SPD has a disorganized brain, many aspects of his behavior are disorganized. Being classified as a disability would require extensive documentation as SPD isn’t fully recognized in children and adults.
Modern theorists point to our individualistic characteristics and development. For example fingerprints are very unique to the individual. Many things are unique, such as blood and tissue types, features, diseases. Brains filled with many neuronal networks may have deviated “wiring”, making ASD, ADHD, SPD and other diseases like DDX3X difficult to treat. It may be the result of genetics and hereditary as causes. Deviated wiring may be the effect among kids that otherwise appear normal and happy. Yet, in school or social settings, they tend to perform with difficulties. Children with SPD struggle with processing stimulation, which can cause a wide range of symptoms, including hypersensitivity to sound, sight and touch. Yet, knowing this, may indicate that SPD may be more of a problem than ADHD or ASD. Think of it as a form of dyslexia of the brain.
SPD can be hard to pinpoint, as up to 90 percent of children with autism also are reported to have atypical sensory behaviors, and SPD has not been listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychiatrists and psychologists.
One of the things common in SPD and ASD (but not seriously studied in ADHD) is bursts of overload attacks. Think of variation of brainwaves that allow us to remain alert, relaxed, and asleep. These kids are always on beta (alert) waves that may be painful and distracting.
Scientists are just beginning to understand and tinker with how people can live and excel with SPD, with some very good successes from very small samples. Use of medicines, special diets, lifestyle changes were included but no firm method. Traditionally, SPD made use of occupational therapy but with mixed results.
Historically, SPD gained little attention as diagnostics were poorly developed. Scopes and PET scanners were only diagnostic tools. As the 21st century rolled in more studies recognized SPD, despite its absence from the DSM. In 2013 a breakthrough study hypothesized that there were more SPD cases than ASD cases in schools.. Yet, how did scientists test for SPD and were those tests reliable?
For adults ADDitude made a self-test survey that adults could fill out. Surveys are subjective and not considered scientific. Provides guidelines of what questions were answered more or less.
In children, SPD may be observed by parents as toddlers experience problems. Parents notice that a child has an unusual aversion to noise, light, shoes that are deemed too tight and clothes that are irritating. They may also notice clumsiness and trouble climbing stairs, and difficulty with fine motor skills like wielding a pencil and fastening buttons.
Of course there are many child development disorders that offer similar symptoms but SPD subtly differs at sensitivities to light, touch, noises, and clothing.
Diagnosis may be a little tricky. Most doctors may jump at ADHD or ASD, as there is some symptom overlap. More thorough exams may explore genetics to reveal DDX3X, dystrophies, and other possibilities. If you report hypersensitive issues to many sensory stimuli, doctor may refer you to an occupational therapist. These professionals can assess children for SPD. They will likely use a series of questions and observations to make a diagnosis. They may observe how your child reacts to certain stimuli. Occupational therapy (OT) is considered a viable therapy for SPD prospects. Beware, their observations may be skewed. OT has had mixed results at efficacy as a treatment.
Adults with SPD also get confused with misdiagnoses. OT is less effective. They have already adjusted to dressing comfortably. Some find role-play effective for compromising actual situations involving mobility at work or shopping or other things that require mobility. Interaction is generally mild. Hypersensitivity means people with SPD people have very low thresholds to variances of others and loudness.
People with SPD experience over reactive processing which can amplify the senses and create over sensitivity to stimuli resulting in sensory overload. To a person without SPD, a train is loud but tolerable, but to a person with SPD, that sound can be stifling, intolerable and even painful, creating anger and avoidance. Travel by public transportation is usually avoided. Yes, a crowded elevator or interior space may be unnerving.
Dating and intimacy are particularly challenging to the SPD and the other. Does the person reveal she has SPD? Some might prefer something out-of-the-box, something people call kinky. Socially, sadomasochistic communities and dominant/submissive relationships may be an integrative comfort zone for a person with SPD. While they are not mutually SPD friendly, the SPD dater doesn’t necessarily share an SPD diagnosis.
Someone dating someone with SPD is flaunting with unique everyday challenges. If you think, “Not tonight, dear, I have a headache” is a flimsy excuse, what would you think about “Not tonight, dear, you’ve put the wrong sheets on the bed again and the refrigerator sounds terrible, and you smell like you just got off an airplane, and my cocoa had lumps in it, and therefore I’m overwhelmed and can’t bear to be touched”?
That is not to say that a person with SPD has to kiss intimate relationships adieu. For people with tactile defensiveness (very sensitive to touch, gets irritated) type of SPD, sex is especially difficult. Since sex involves a lot of touching (including kissing, cuddling, fondling…and touching all the way and I have to stop mentioning the obvious details), some people with tactile SPD are averse to sexual activities. But, by adopting masochistic tendencies, may tolerate and exceed their threshold. The pain is rationalized within a supportive relationship.
Adults with sensory dysfunction issues have to cope with the challenges of everyday life while struggling with their neurological responses to such things as ceiling fans, background noise, off-gassing synthetic carpets, too many people talking at once, uncomfortable work clothes, and so on. So…typical dating environments might be like a tunnel of horrors.
Sounds, sights, smells, textures, and tastes can create a feeling of “sensory overload.” Bright or flickering lights, loud noises, certain textures of food, and scratchy clothing are just some of the triggers that can make kids and affected adults feel overwhelmed and upset.
SPD is not a mood disorder. It should not be confused with autism or ADHD, though symptoms overlap. Using Concerta for ADHD may help some symptoms of SPD but not all. SPD clearly stems from a brain that has been developed slightly differently, per University of California San Francisco study.
In studies, SPD is emerging as a new, exciting star but so much more research is necessary. Part of the problem is the condition is not professionally accepted. Although sensory processing disorder is accepted in the Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood (DC:0-3R), it is not recognized as a mental disorder in medical manuals such as the ICD-10 or the DSM-5. This restricts orthodox treatment.
Sensory processing is the way each of us responds to incoming sensory information. We learn and grow through our senses which include touch, sight, sound, smell, taste, proprioception, and vestibular sensations. We manage our day-to-day activities through all the information our bodies take in. Ninety percent of this information is actually below our conscious level of awareness. A worker with SPD may find these normally unconscious stimuli as disturbing, in a condition that evolves with age.
Many workplaces have ways they can adapt for medical conditions or they can get assistance from an occupational therapist in order to make ADAAA accommodations. Most companies may not even be aware of sensory processing issues and how much they can affect some people’s lives. Awareness is key and simple changes can drastically affect some people’s lives and work performance.
Like individual fingerprints, muscle and nerve issues, skin issues, brains follow specific guidelines when developing. Takes about 3 to 5 years on average. SPD develops in the brain as a form of distortion affecting senses at varying degrees. For the most part, adults with SPD are smart, articulate, and welcoming. Beware the hypersensitivities. You must be super-tolerant.
Being part of the human race, there are so many permutations and combinations that alter ourselves and realities. At our most normal, we disguise our frailties. Throughout conflicts, betweens, and hugs, our bodies and minds have differing capacities. We must join together to battle challenges. From my early efforts of understanding sensitivity in the 1990’s, we’ve slowly crept to understand that when someone says “Do not touch me”, it might be sensory overload or SPD. Answers lie in ever afters.