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sensory processing basics

The Basics of Sensory Processing Disorder

The term “sensory processing” or “sensory integration” refers to the complex neurological process involved in registering, organizing, interpreting, and responding to information gathered by the senses. Anytime you engage in an action involving one of your senses (can you think of any action that does not involve your senses?), your body is engaged in sensory processing.

Sometimes, the ability of the body’s neurological system to register, organize, interpret and/or respond to information from the senses is impaired. Everyone has sensory “quirks,” but when these interfere with a person’s ability to function efficiently in their daily lives, a “sensory processing disorder” is at play.

Although sensory processing disorder (SPD) is not recognized by medical and psychiatric diagnostic “bibles” such as the DSM or the ICD-9, this does not mean that it is not real. Anyone with impaired sensory processing can describe its pervasive and chronic negative impact on his or her daily life.

What SPD means for Madeline

Madeline’s sensory processing disorder is most pronounced and impactful in her ability to register and respond to touch (tactile) information and movement (vestibular) information. She is “under-responsive” to both forms of sensory information, so that her body needs way more of it in order to detect and respond to it accordingly. So, in an effort to meet her body’s needs, Madeline “seeks” sensory input—particularly in these two forms—much more than a typical child. For example, she requires clothing that compresses her body very snugly. She has an underlying need to be in motion all of the time, and it takes great effort on her part to resist the urge to move and touch when that is expected (such as when having to sit in school, or when being asked not to touch things in a store). When she has her way, she will jump, run, climb, bounce and spin constantly. She chews things incessantly, even at her age. Frankly, the list of her sensory preferences and needs goes on and on. It is a never-ending process to understand them and find ways to meet them so that she can go about her life.

The impact of Madeline’s sensory processing disorder has increased as she’s grown older. She had no significantly atypical sensory needs as an infant or toddler, although she certainly was a sensory-seeker for vestibular input beginning at a very young age. The real problems began to emerge when she was about four, when her sensitivity to the fit and feeling of her clothing began to impact her with increasing frequency. Since then, her ability to describe her needs and her coping strategies have vastly improved, but her needs continue to emerge and they affect her life every single day. Some days are very difficult for Madeline, and I am the first to admit that I don’t always handle it well. Just like the demands of T1, the demands of SPD require complex logistical planning and preparation on my part—leaving enough time not just for dealing with the challenges, but also leaving enough time for the coaching, teaching and nurturing that must occur.  Some days I do a better job of this than others. And every day, I worry about the emotional toll of both T1 Diabetes and SPD: Madeline feels vastly different from her peers, feels betrayed by her body, and feels angry and depressed when she loses control because of overwhelming sensory needs.

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