Making Sense of Sensory Processing Disorder

Children with SPD do not have well-regulated sensory worlds. But with parental understanding and occupational therapy they can learn to self-regulate
By Sally Hetherington

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This time last year I was at my wit’s end. My five-year-old was more than impossible. Tantrums, yelling, lashing out, fighting bedtime... I could go on. It was a pretty miserable environment for all of us to be living in. Some friends told me, “Don’t worry, it’s normal for her age”; teachers reported her to be sweet, confident and quiet... was I missing something? My little angel became a monster at home and I could not in my heart believe this was “normal” five-year-old behaviour.
I eventually took her to see an occupational therapist (OT) hoping to shed some light on the issue. After an extensive session we had a diagnosis: Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders – I was not a bad mom and it was nothing that I was or wasn’t doing. Home was just her safe place where she could let it all out.
Processing differently
Most people with well-regulated sensory worlds are able to receive sensory stimuli from outside and organise them into appropriate motor or behavioural responses – sensory integration. Someone with SPD cannot process this information correctly and therefore behaves inappropriately.
Here’s an example that might explain it: when I go shopping I have my goal – my shopping list – in mind. My brain automatically gathers all the outside sensory information, such as music, cooking smells and vibrant colours, and processes these to the background so that I can concentrate on my shopping. My daughter on the other hand takes it all in like a waterfall rushing at her. It all gets “stuck” in her brain and she can’t process it properly. Eventually it all comes crashing down and ends up with what I call “a meltdown”.
Cape Town OT Gudrun van Heukelum explains that we all connect with the world through our senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, as well the two “hidden” senses. The first of these relates to movement and our position in relation to gravity (vestibular sense); the second is concerned with our internal body awareness, where we respond to feedback from muscles and joints (proprioceptive sense).
Says Gudrun: “Each individual has a unique sensory-processing style and OTs study how children respond to sensory experiences to see if they are over- or under-responsive, which manifests respectively in behaviour that is sensory avoiding or sensory seeking.”
She goes on to explain that both require parental understanding and mediation to facilitate an appropriate state of alertness and help with feeding, sleeping and routine cycles. This support programme is most beneficial when being used under the guidance of a professional sensory integration-oriented OT.
Where to from here?
My daughter has been visiting an OT for nearly a year and we are winning small battles every day. It has been a huge relief to understand that she is not a “difficult” child but that she has genuine difficulties processing her everyday world.
We have implemented various strategies to help her cope, including a sensory diet (limited TV and computer time, shorter play dates, only one activity per afternoon and allowing lots of space for quiet activities and outdoor play) and stricter routines. We have also learnt how to prepare and calm her for over-stimulating events, such as a show, so that we can all enjoy it without the tantrums. It is a long process and not something that will ever “go away” but with love, support and patience we will help our daughter to learn to self-regulate so she can grow into a secure and happy young adult. 


Anonymous wrote 2 years 42 weeks ago

I am a mom of a 9 year old who is in the process of being diagnosed with SPD (busy with an OT and a psychologist at the moment) and it is driving me insane. He lashes out more so at school than at home, and his teacher doesn't seem to understand what this disorder entails. She just maintains that he is disrespectful and it is so frustrating, because as much as he can have a bad day, he has good days as well. Are there any support groups in Cape Town where I can share with other mothers while they are assessing him to determine diagnosis.

Thanks so much

Anonymous wrote 5 years 4 weeks ago

Our son was diagnosed with the same by an OT 20 or so years ago; a programme for support was designed and implemented to support his learning and social integration and he went from a year behind his academic profile to two years ahead after one year of maintaining the programme. Today he has completed his Masters degree.

wendyk6 wrote 6 years 26 weeks ago

My son started school last year and really was heartbreaking to watch his self-esteem just erode. We had never had problems with him before; he had some fine motor issues but nothing the crèche told me he wouldn't achieve later. After many doctor visits, educational psychologist, paediatrician, optometrists, you name it, there is still no diagnosis as such. Looking at the SPD symptoms I am convinced that this is what he suffers from – the tantrums, insecurity, tactile problems, etc. How does one go about getting a proper diagnosis? From what I've read it doesn't seem to be a recognised condition. I do try brushing him. He is seeing an OT and speech therapist. Do children with SPD need to be on medication? Any information would be greatly appreciated.

admin wrote 6 years 25 weeks ago

The findings of this article were that OT rather than medication is the way to deal with this disorder, which is what you seem to be doing for your child. However, we cannot give medical advice so we recommend that you ask your OT to refer you to the health care practitioners who could give you a proper diagnosis. All the best.

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