Parent FAQs

Q. What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

A: Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a complex disorder of the brain that affects developing children and adults who were not treated in childhood. Children with SPD misinterpret everyday sensory information, such as touch, sound, and movement. Some feel bombarded by sensory information; others seek out intense sensory experiences or have other problems. This can lead to behavioral problems, difficulties with coordination, and other issues.

Symptoms of SPD, like those of most disorders, occur within a broad spectrum of severity. While most of us have occasional difficulties processing sensory information, for children and adults with SPD, these difficulties are chronic, and they disrupt everyday life.

There are several types of Sensory Processing Disorder, and each one may result in a number of different behavioral and sensory patterns.

Q: Is Sensory Processing Disorder different from “dysfunction of sensory integration” or “sensory integration dysfunction”?

A: No. Sensory Processing Disorder is a new term that health care professionals are now using to describe dysfunction of sensory integration/sensory integration function. Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD is an umbrella term for several distinct forms of sensory processing issues. Read more about the types of SPD in Defining SPD and its subtypes.

Q: Is there proof that SPD is real?

A: Following a hiatus after sensory pioneer Dr. A. Jean Ayres died in 1988, research into SPD has recently entered a massive growth phase. The sensory processing abilities of hundreds of children are being tested in multiple laboratories, providing the replicate data that are the cornerstone of scientific credibility. Research scientists from numerous, diverse disciplines are conducting primate studies, rat studies, anatomic studies, electroencephalographic, and other psychophysiological studies, plus studies of twins, other familial studies, and more. Results are being reported in refereed professional journals where research must meet exacting standards to be published.

Scientists are hard at work on questions such as these:

What’s going on in the brains of these children?
How is SPD similar and different from other disorders
What does SPD look like
Does treatment work?
How many people have SPD?
Where does SPD come from?
Is heredity a factor?

Q: How is Sensory Processing Disorder treated?

A: SPD is typically treated with a program of occupational therapy (OT) conducted in a sensory-rich environment. Appropriate OT can change the neurological functioning in children with SPD so they can manage their responses to sensations and behave in a more functional manner. Successful OT enables them to take part in the normal activities of childhood such as playing with friends, enjoying school, eating, dressing, and sleeping. Therapy can take place in a hospital OT department or in a private practice setting. The most effective treatment is tailored to the needs of the individual child. Read more about occupational therapy in Treatment for SPD.

Q: Are children entitled to Sensory Processing Disorder therapy in school by law?

A: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees a free and appropriate public education with peers, to the maximum extent appropriate, to all eligible children with disabilities (ages 3-21) who need special education and related services in order to learn in school. Children with disabilities can receive occupational therapy (OT) if they qualify for special education. In addition, a school team, including the parents, must decide if the therapy is necessary. (Some school districts will provide OT in other instances, e.g., to give teachers suggestions before referring a child to special education, called a pre-referral.)

There are no provisions in state or federal law that specify how OT, once recommended by the team, must be provided. This includes the service model, frequency of intervention, and the frame of reference.

In due process hearings and the courts, the issue of theory base or frame of reference has been referred to as a methodology decision. One of the latest court decisions regarding methodology centered around individual instruction for a student with dyslexia using the Ortho-Gillingham method (E.S. v. Independent Sch. Dist. No. 196). The district court disallowed the parent’s request for this kind of reading instruction, stating that schools have discretion over methodology decisions as long as the program provides a free and appropriate public education.

Therapists who recommend school-based sensory integration therapy must show how the student needs this kind of occupational therapy in order to benefit from participation in the curriculum and specific school activities. Important issues to address (in jargon-free language) include:

The student’s performance levels in educationally relevant areas
How OT services using sensory integration would support team goals
The specific instructional methods and materials (including those based on sensory integration principles) needed to assist the student in reaching specified educational goals
More information about the schools and SPD is located in Our Library.

Sources

AOTA (1997). OT services for children and youth under the IDEA. Bethesda MD.
AOTA (1997). Statement-Sensory integration evaluation and intervention in school-based occupational therapy. Bethesda MD. (Available from FAX-on-Request from the AOTA National Office, 800-701-7735, document #903)
E.S. v. Independent Sch. Dist. No.196, 27 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Law Review 503, 96-4214, 8th Cir. 1998.

Q: How can I meet other parents of children with Sensory Processing Disorder?

A: Find an online support group. Try Yahoo Groups and Topica for some active listserves. You can locate groups by searching under terms such as “sensory processing,” “sensory integration,” “SPD,” or “DSI”.