Sensory Processing Challenges in Children

“I was that kid who didn’t quite fit in.

I have Sensory Processing Disorder which is similar to sensory defensiveness, low muscle tone, dyspraxia and central auditory processing disorder. All this means that my brain doesn’t know what to do with the information that it gets from my senses. Noises and bright or flashing lights make me feel dizzy and nauseous. I can’t tell where my body is in space, so I’m pretty clumsy. I rely heavily on being able to see where I am and where everything else is so if I close my eyes I can’t balance, I’ll just wobble and fall over. Using my muscles takes a lot of concentration, I have to think about what I’m doing before my body moves, I don’t have automatic movement like other people do. My brain can’t differentiate between different sounds and between sounds I should be listening to and background noise. This means that if there is more than one sound at a time it just sounds like noise. In order for my brain to accurately ‘hear’ I rely on being able to see what the person is saying.”

This excerpt was written by Nicola Winson, a wonderful lady in her thirties who did a lot of volunteering here at Wandsworth School last year. This forms part of her explanation of ‘what it feels like’ to have Sensory Processing Disorder, and it makes for some interesting observations. Firstly, and most obviously, she is able to express herself and her needs at any given point very eloquently. Many of our children are not yet verbal, and so are not able to communicate their more basic needs for refreshment or the bathroom, let alone a feeling that is already difficult to put into words.

With SPD, the brain doesn’t process incoming sensory information appropriately, resulting in jumbled messages and somewhat confused or inappropriate motor output. Nicola says that doing two things simultaneously is very tricky, like raising her arms upwards and singing. Because she is focused on keeping her arms up, she is not able to add her voice to sing too. She says that rocking is a coping skill that she uses in order to remind herself where her body is in space. No, she is not Autistic. Nicola also has an awkward recollection of being a part time Sunday school teacher, and modelling behaviour appropriately to a class of children. She would ask the children whilst they are standing, to bow their heads and pray, but for her to manage these two tasks alone, without even praying aloud for them, is way too much to expect without her feeling very nauseous and the room spinning at breakneck speed.

With our Wandsworth children, we find, with the input of the Occupational Therapy team, SPD may be lurking within other, more obvious diagnoses, or as a stand-alone disorder. As a multidisciplinary team, we strive to work together to make each child’s learning experience tolerable and even enjoyable over time. Activities like messy play, food prep and baking, holding a paintbrush or a pencil, touching sand, physical education and games, or those that require gross and fine movements at once, can all become quite complex for some children to manage. We can never underestimate the stress experienced by our children who might find movement (or being still), thinking, speaking and the business of learning, an indescribable challenge.

Remembering each child as an individual, and doing our best to recognise where there may be issues putting two actions together, will go a long way in the early identification of a possible disruption in sensory processing.