The debate over sensory processing disorder: Are some kids really ‘out of sync’?

A diagnosis of SPD may seem easier to accept than, say, the stigma-fraught label of autism. “SPD, I think, for many parents, sounds better, sounds like a more minor thing; it sounds like it’s easily treatable,” said Lord, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and the director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. But Lord said a parent’s acceptance of an incorrect diagnosis can harm a child: “People focus on something like that and don’t deal with the fact that this child has multiple difficulties and many of those multiple difficulties are treatable.”

Part of the problem is that SPD manifests itself in varied ways. “There are different kinds of sensory processing challenges,” said Elysa Marco, a cognitive and behavioral child neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco. “And certainly no two kids with that label are going to be exactly the same.”

Zimmer noted that some unusual behaviors may not last and are not necessarily indicative of anything larger. “Maybe it doesn’t turn into anything,” she said. “Maybe it’s just certain kids’ temperament. . . . Maybe they’re just more oversensitive to things, and usually those kids honestly grow out of it.”

Research and a diagnosis

Sensory processing has been in the news and on the minds of parents for decades — ever since occupational therapist and psychologist A. Jean Ayres focused on what was called sensory integration dysfunction in the 1960s.

But getting to the bottom of SPD has never been easy. Since SPD is not recognized by the likes of the AAP and the DSM-5, researchers in the field face particular funding challenges. Marco, who is director of research for the autism and neurodevelopment program at UCSF, is considering using crowdfunding for an upcoming project.

To foster scientific inquiry into SPD, since 2002, the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation has been convening a work group of leading researchers. One of them is John J. Foxe, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “I’m interested in the underlying neuropathologies that give rise to these kind of symptoms,” Foxe said.

Foxe, who is also the director of research at the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Einstein, said that he has indeed seen children with only sensory processing problems: “The kids are out there, they’re suffering, and we need to get to the bottom of it. That’s really what matters here.”

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