The irritating feeling of an itchy tag on the back of your shirt, the screeching of nails dragged across a chalkboard, or the sound of someone chewing. Before your angst takes over and your temper flares, it’s helpful to stop and consider the things that are actually bothering you. They may just be minor irritations, or they could be a sign of something much more serious — sensory processing disorder (SPD).
Sensory Processing Disorder: An Overview
Sensory processing disorder, also known as sensory integration dysfunction, affects how your brain interprets signals and this malfunction can render your brain unable to organize input signals into appropriate responses. Typically, if you hear a siren and see flashing blue lights in your rear-view mirror, you know you may be getting pulled over for speeding. Or the feeling of a soft, fuzzy blanket can remind you of warm snuggles on a winter evening. Your body relies on all of your senses—taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing—to function properly.
With sensory processing disorder, these input signals are presented to your brain in a chaotic way, which can range from a mild disorder to so significant that everyday life is disrupted. In some people, only one sense may be affected, whereas for others, multiple senses are involved.
Touch disorders are a common problem. Just think about the roughness of an old wool blanket versus the silkiness of satin sheets. For those with SPD, the extreme difference can be unbearable. Some children refuse to wear cotton t-shirts and instead only want smooth nylon-polyester blends (like a sports shirt). Others are unable to wear a coat or bulky sweater in winter. Therefore, it’s common for those affected to wear just a few outfits over and over again.
If your sense of sight is affected, you may not be able to handle bright lights. Brightness can be overwhelming, and the experience is similar to trying to read a book while looking at the sun—it can’t be done.
Auditory senses can be significantly affected by sensory processing disorder. If this is the case, you may not be able stand in large crowds or attend major sporting events due to the excessive noise. Others may not be able to handle silence and require headsets with music or sounds playing constantly.
Sensory processing disorder is usually identified early in childhood. However, it can manifest in adulthood as well. Adults who were not assessed as children may be withdrawn from society, prefer to be alone, and have few (if any) friends, leading to worsening signs of depression and anxiety, and they may struggle with relationships at work and at home. Symptoms experienced by children are often confused with behavioral outbursts, attention deficit disorders, or learning difficulties. They may be clumsy, unable to hold a pencil or crayon and use it correctly, have difficulty speaking, never seem to stand up straight and are always slumping, and are often overly focused on one task. As a child with SPD grows older, their social and motor skills dramatically decrease, and emotional withdrawal and outbursts tend to increase.
Bacterial infections are known to be the cause of some of these disorders, but sensory processing disorder does not have one specific cause. Researchers think genetics may play a role especially if one or both parents have had similar struggles. Other possibilities include poor nutrition, low birth weight, prematurity, birth complications, and environmental conflicts (such as parental drug or alcohol use). Foster children and adopted children are at an increased risk of sensory processing disorder owing to the environmental changes they have experienced. However, simply being at a higher risk does not mean a child will acquire the disorder.
Interventions for Sensory Processing Disorder
Being diagnosed with sensory processing disorder is not a reflection of intellect but simply describes how your brain interprets sensory signals differently. Through proper intervention, you can be taught how to correctly receive chaotic signals and deal with them normally. Specialized occupational therapy is one of the best ways to achieve this. By dealing with different sights, sounds, and feelings, a child or adult can explore and learn. Many towns, cities, and vacation destinations have sensory playgrounds and gyms that people of all ages can use.
Weighted blankets are becoming popular to help those with SPD. Busy and stressful days, sitting through a thunderstorm, or simply being out in public can be hard to deal with and blankets may provide some comfort after dealing with difficult situations. These can be adjusted in terms of size and weight for small children or adults. The pressure of the weighted beads in the blanket calms your body down and provides support.
Other inventions focus on the behavioral responses triggered by SPD. The proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” is genuine with sensory processing disorder. The overload is cause by being continuously inundated by your senses. What may not bother one person, may drive another to the point of screaming, yelling, violent angry outbursts, temper tantrums, running away from situations, biting themselves or others, or throwing punches. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the issue may not be too much of something but not enough. Those with sensory processing disorder may need help dealing with impulsive behavior, binge eating, or seeking excessive chaotic stimuli—like deafening music, large amounts of alcohol, or drug use.
Emotional and mental psychotherapy are critical because many people with SPD struggle to deal with other people and the rigors of society. Symptoms of depression and anxiety must be addressed and worked through with a qualified professional.
Depression: A Symptom with Many Causes
If you have depression, you may have a low mood and may not want to take part in normal activities you once enjoyed. You may find yourself not wanting to be involved with family or work events and instead, prefer to be alone. You may be unusually tired or struggling to get out of bed and your family may have to insist you get up and shower, when you were once able to do this all on your own. Depression is a severe illness and requires proper intervention. Failing to address depression can cause other issues to arise, including loss of employment, increased weight gain/loss due to overeating/undereating, the inability to make decisions, strained family relationships, and worsening health.
Stress felt with sensory processing disorder is very real. Whether your stress is auditory or tactile, your body assimilates it in the same way. Typically, when a foreign invader enters your body, your NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response system orchestrates your body’s response via six interconnected circuits: hormone, bioenergetics, detoxification, inflammation, cardionomic, and neuroaffect.
If you are experiencing sensory overload, multiple circuits are involved as your heart begins to race and powerful hormones are produced to protect your body from the perceived danger. Your digestive tract may suddenly slow down as energy is diverted to the brain to enhance your senses even more. If you struggle with sensory processing disorder, your neuroaffect circuit is highly activated. Furthermore, inflammation caused by stress can damage your brain by harming the neurons that produce pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Your brain is an organ capable of handling varying levels of stress. Powerful brain-derived neurogenic factor (BDNF) can strengthen your neurons—which are responsible for sending impulses throughout your body—by bestowing a plasticity-like strength enabling them to survive longer and perform better. This enables your brain to create new pathways if old ones are damaged.
The increase or decrease of BDNF in the brain is based on many factors. Some positive factors are
- Consistent exercise – sends more oxygen to your brain and improves its function;
- Quality sleep – optimal brain function requires adequate sleep and being overly tired can hurt your body and mind;
- Nutrition – a healthy diet full of omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron, and magnesium can increase the production of BDNF.
Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome
If the NEM stress response is overworked, your body can begin to suffer from exhaustion and may become depleted of necessary nutrients it needs to function properly. This can result in Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). The symptoms of AFS can include
- Lethargy and exhaustion
- Inability to function
- Brain fog
- Panic attacks
- New food allergies
Symptoms can start out very minor and progress so slowly that they are initially difficult to detect. If you suffer from SPD, you may avoid social situations, therefore family members may not see the signs of AFS until they become severe. Worsening symptoms include debilitating fatigue, malabsorption and maldigestion of foods, lightheadedness when standing, decreased memory, weight gain around the stomach (even with diet and exercise), and increased frequency of colds and flu-like illnesses. These symptoms occur because your body is unable to perform at the level it should, and functions begin to slow down.
When considering that co-prevalence of AFS and Sensory Processing Disorder, it is essential to address the body’s need for proper care and diet. Recovery from AFS relies on finding the causes of emotional or physical stress that are damaging your body. Nutrition is fundamental especially since the tendency to eat poorly during times of stress is very high. Emotional stress can cause cravings for sugar, carbohydrates, and fatty foods.
A dietary coach can provide meal suggestions that are appropriate for you and may help. Particularly if you suffer from sensory processing disorder and struggle with the taste and consistency of certain foods. Even so-called simple foods, like a vegetable soup, can have too many colors and textures. Finding healthy foods that are palatable to all of your senses could help make your diet healthier.
You may also want to consider getting yourself tested for food allergies and nutritional deficiencies. Vitamin and mineral supplements may also be necessary. However, it’s important to seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional before taking any new supplements. What may be safe for a typical healthy adult, may not be safe for you. In addition, it’s equally important to take supplements that are certified and only contain quality ingredients at the right levels.
Emotional support for sensory processing disorder is especially crucial for those also suffering from AFS. Some options for finding emotional stability are yoga, meditation, craniosacral therapy, and gentle Swedish or Thai massage. Expressive therapy is good for those who may not know how to verbalize their feelings and feel overwhelmed by them. As you are taught to release your emotions through talking, artwork, writing or journaling, listening or playing music, or dancing, your body can begin to physically heal.
Is sensory processing disorder contagious to others?
No, sensory processing disorder is a condition that affects how the brain interprets the signals it receives from the senses. These signals are not processed properly which causes the sufferer to feel overwhelmed. It is not contagious and cannot be spread to anyone else.
Sensory processing disorder is a lifetime condition that can be helped through proper interventions. The overwhelmed senses, with the right help, can be interpreted properly. It is crucial for parents, friends, teachers, and clergy to be aware of the signs of sensory processing disorder for early diagnosis. The brain is a powerful organ that can deal with stress for a limited amount of time. If your body is given the right nutrients, exercise, and sleep, it can produce the right chemicals and hormones that will allow it to heal as it should.
© Copyright 2019 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
Is sensory processing disorder contagious?
No, sensory processing disorder is a condition that affects how the brain interprets the signals it receives from the senses. The signals not processed correctly which can cause the sufferer to feel overwhelmed. It is not contagious and cannot be given to anyone else.