Sensory processing disorder or sensory integration dysfunction (DSI) is a condition that may affect up to 5% of the general population. It is typically defined as a neurological disorder that means sensory input can materially affect a person, to the point where they become withdrawn, aggressive, panicked, or hostile. Simple noises, tastes, touches, or sights can so significantly affect daily living that normal activities are not bearable or are impossible.
Alternately, instead of being hypersensitive, some people with the condition are hyposensitive, and fail to respond in normal fashion to stimulation of the senses. These people, primarily children, may seek out extra sensation, and may hurt themselves, overeat, or seek to stimulate themselves in settings where they perceive a lack of sensation. This might manifest as the restless behavior of a child with hyperactivity who can’t stop talking or can’t stay seated. Similarly the hypersensitive child might act in hyperactive ways because they are overstimulated by sensory input.
In many cases, sensory processing disorder is associated with other conditions. It is usually present in people who have autism spectrum disorder and is associated with other conditions like attention deficit and Tourette syndrome. Sometimes it presents alone, but may be misdiagnosed since it can mask or cause the symptoms of other conditions. Diagnosis is made through examination and testing by an occupational therapist. Commonly the only way sensory processing disorder is appropriately diagnosed is by an occupational therapist.
Though there are no cures for sensory processing disorder there are a number of adaptive therapies which can be tried to help children modify reactions to sensory input. Treatment may be undertaken in hospital settings or from home through therapy sessions to help a child adapt to feelings of sensory overload or deprivation in order to more adequately pursue a normal life. Decision as to whether to hospitalize a child with sensory processing disorder may be based on the availability of such a hospital for a child, and also on the degree to which the condition has a negative impact on children’s lives. Some children are hypersensitive without being considered as having a disorder; there is a spectrum, which can manifest as mild to major symptoms of the condition. Usually the condition is not considered a disorder unless the child or adult’s life is significantly affected by hyper or hyposensitivity.
The more severe cases of sensory processing disorder have a significant impact on daily life and are related to intense depression in people who suffer from the condition. Normal behavior like attending school, eating, watching TV, having friends, or even interacting with family is virtually impossible. The simplest touch can feel like a violation, the simplest sound can completely disrupt focus, and most foods and smells are repugnant. Over time, through adaptive therapy with an occupational therapist, children can learn to overcome some of these intense reactions, though they may still be highly sensitive, fearful, and have difficulty with peer interaction. To worsen matters, many of the kids diagnosed with severe forms of this disorder have other issues, like difficulty with coordination, poor fine and gross motor skills, and occasionally speech difficulties.
The disorder remains challenging, and there is little research as to cause. Clearly more research is needed on how to treat the disorder effectively, and how to diagnose it at its earliest stages. Early intervention may be key to helping children adapt to sensory processing disorder so that life can be lived in a relatively normal fashion.