When someone has sensory processing disorder (or SPD), their ability to interpret internal or external stimuli as a “neurotypical” person would is impaired. Your five senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell—are all well-known to you. Someone with SPD might not enjoy loud noises, strong odors, or bright lights. But there are also your own senses of movement and location (proprioception) (vestibular). The term “sensory seeker” is used to describe people with SPD who are either hyposensitive or hypersensitive and may avoid being overstimulated.
“Each sensory system is a cup,” says Samantha Davis, an occupational therapist with Kidsplay Therapy Center. “Ideally our systems are a nice medium-sized cup,” but for kids who are hypersensitive, their cups are small. Stimuli, like loud sounds, “is going to make their cup overflow and may end up in emotional outbursts, behaviors, or for some kids, complete shutdown.” However, a sensory-seeker has a large cup—“but since their cup is so big, it takes a lot of input in order to fill it up.” They may love spicy foods or spinning over and over on the tire swing.
How do you find out if your child has SPD?
I became aware of my own daughter’s differences from other toddlers when she was 2 years old. She preferred jumping off of terrifyingly high jungle gyms and shied away from touching other children. She struggled with eating solids and often threw loud temper tantrums. She didn’t exhibit any other symptoms of autism, which surprised me because I believed sensory issues were common in autistic children. She checked out several boxes on a checklist I obtained from Sensory Smart Parent, indicating both hyper and hyposensitivity.
Her pediatrician concurred that this sounded like sensory difficulties and recommended that we get an evaluation from a private occupational therapist. Later, our local school district placed her in an early intervention program. I learned that we might have begun there as well to get a free evaluation and services. Ask your insurer about private OT services if you’re unsure whether your child has SPD; many of these evaluations and treatments are reimbursed.