How our body and brain receives, interprets, organizes, and utilizes sensory information SHOULD be an automatic process that occurs accurately and efficiently, without effort or conscious choice. A sensory processing disorder (SPD) is an “invisible” challenge, characterized by a disorganized way that the nervous systems attempts to understand and make use of sensory information. Considering just one of the sensory systems (there are actually nine!), imagine a child whose hearing is extremely acute. At school, and quite simultaneously, this student can hear a page turn from 20 feet, a peer’s whisper, another student’s foot shuffle on the floor, a classmate chewing gum, all the noises in the corridor, a door close down the hall, and all the while, is asked to attend to and make sense of a teacher’s instruction and then execute some task. This student’s auditory system is not able to filter out unimportant information and will frequently miss important aspects of given directions. Additionally, the extreme effort with which this student attempts to maintain arousal and focus, exhausts valuable energy sources that are needed to get through the day. Now, when this inefficient processing occurs in multiple sensory systems, and so frequently it does, this often manifests as negative behaviors in children, however unintentional it may be. Hyperactive, non-compliant, irritable, inattentive, anxious, aggressive, controlling, withdrawn, loud, and disorganized are just a few “labels” that denote “bad behavior” and for which a child can easily become known by teachers, parents, and peers. It is important to understand that these children are not intentionally misbehaving and may need additional supports in place to help them be successful. Once the exact nature of the sensory processing deficits are identified, adults around them should be given the tools and strategies to help them succeed without making them stand out from their peers. Having teachers and an administration in a school who are knowledgeable about sensory processing differences and can create an environment to help all children succeed is a wonderful and much-needed resource for the community. Through education, the other students gain awareness of their own needs and individual differences as well. In this way, teachers can celebrate differences and “normalize” the need for everyone to use sensory strategies to enhance focus and attention, fostering a nuturing and supportive environment where all children can grow into their best selves.
Contributed by: Karen Basset, MS, OTR/L