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What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Schizophrenia Insights

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

 

A Copyright Harvard Health Publications

 

My son always seems to be in trouble at school. His elementary school teacher told me she thinks he has sensory processing disorder. What is that?

Answer by Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

My son always seems to be in trouble at school. His elementary school teacher told me she thinks he has sensory processing disorder. What is that?

Sensory processing disorder is a term used mainly by occupational therapists to describe children who have trouble integrating different types of sensory information, such as images, sounds, tastes, and smells.

Dr. A. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and developmental psychologist, first described what was then known as sensory integration dysfunction in 1972. Although the concept has evolved over the years, the core idea is that social, emotional, and behavioral problems might reflect a child’s hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, or inability to integrate these stimuli properly. According to the theory, these difficulties lead the child to act out, fidget, have outbursts of anger, and develop problem behaviors at school and home.

There’s no consensus among mental health professionals about whether sensory processing disorder is a valid diagnosis. The symptoms and behaviors are quite similar to those seen in autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder. Thus, many experts believe that this separate label is not necessary. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, does not list criteria for sensory processing disorder.

Finding the right diagnosis is always a particular challenge in children, who vary in their developmental trajectory. And the label is not important, as long as caregivers and teachers are focused on helping the child to function better and to enjoy life.

If you’ve been told your child has sensory processing disorder, it’s probably wise to seek a second opinion from a licensed clinician to make sure that he receives an accurate assessment of his problem. That way, you’re more likely to find the approach that has the best chances of working.