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

Although a biological basis for SPD has been assumed for decades by some, it was first demonstrated only last year in a small study by Marco and other scientists from UCSF. Their research, published in NeuroImage: Clinical, an online journal, used an advanced imaging technique to show differences in connectivity in the part of the brain that processes information from the senses between boys identified with SPD alone and a control group.

“That’s, I think, the first study that showed a concrete, measurable structural difference in brains of kids who carry that label,” Marco said. Her next study will compare children with SPD alone and those with autism.

Other challenges to understanding SPD include the variety of its presumed causes and the fact that it changes over time: What you see at age 2 is going to be very different from what you see at 8 and 18, Marco said. So far, researchers have studied possible causes ranging from genetics to structural brain problems to premature birth. Studies in animals have linked sensory issues to prenatal exposure to lead or alcohol.

Foxe said his research — recording children’s brain wave patterns — found evidence that children identified with SPD are processing sensory inputs in a somewhat different way from others. “For me,” he said, “this is a home run from a science perspective that it’s clear that their brains are somewhat different.” Foxe and his colleague Sophie Molholm posit that a typical child processes, for example, the sounds, sights and feel of an object or an event as a whole experience, whereas a child with SPD would not be able to integrate these parts as easily. As a result, Foxe said, the world could become overwhelming for the SPD child.

Treating SPD

The frustrations of these sensory challenges can lead to temper tantrums and meltdowns. Kids sometimes get expelled from preschool because of their intense behavior issues.

“Everybody thinks they’re ‘a bad kid,’ ” said Lucy Jane Miller, clinical director of the Sensory Therapies and Research Center in Greenwood Village, Colo., which works with about 400 families a year. “But they’re not a bad kid, they’re just misunderstood.”

Such children can be helped through a variety of therapies. Often, an occupational therapist and/or a psychologist provide the treatment. Miller, who is also research director of the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, explains that the big goals of therapy are “social participation, self-regulation and self-esteem.”

The occupational therapy usually takes place in a gym with multisensory challenges such as climbing, jumping, riding zip lines and diving into a container of bubble balls. Other techniques might include comforting a restless child by covering him with slightly weighted blankets or gently brushing a child who is underresponsive.

Most experts believe OT can help children with sensory processing issues, but some, such as Lord, caution that there’s little scientific evidence to prove it. With the lack of in-depth data on treatment comes the possibility that families may be taken advantage of by the false promise of cures — a situation that can happen with other puzzling conditions such as autism or Asperger syndrome.

Zimmer encourages families dealing with sensory issues to have their pediatricians help navigate the child’s treatment by occupational therapists. OT sessions, which can run roughly $125 to $200 an hour, are often conducted weekly, but some practices offer intensive programs over several weeks. Whereas insurance may not pay for treatment for SPD, these visits may be covered for a coexisting condition such as autism or for developmental delays or low muscle tone and/or coordination issues that interfere with daily life.

At age 5, the Silver Spring boy who avoided bubble wrap games is doing better, thanks, his mother said, to occupational and speech therapy, his special school and efforts at home by his parents. He seems much more comfortable in the world, and, his mother said, “He can function and look pretty normal most of the time.”

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