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Ask the Doctors by Eve Glazier, M.D. & Elizabeth Ko, M.D.

Sensory processing disorder not yet recognized diagnosis

Dear Doctors: Can you please discuss sensory processing disorder? Our 17-year-old daughter has it, but help is sketchy. What kind of professional is best to

deal with this disorder? So far, all we know is what we have read on the internet. Any information is greatly appreciated.

Dear Reader: The term “sensory processing disorder” refers to a condition in which someone has an atypical response to ordinary sensory stimuli. It is believed to occur due to the way in which the brain receives and interprets the information that is being delivered by the senses. For example, people with sensory processing disorder are often hypersensitive to sound. They may find the whir of a fan or the sound of hair being brushed to be so uncomfortable, or even painful, that they become overwhelmed.

Sight and taste can be affected as well. Even a dim light can be too bright, and the textures of certain foods can be nauseating. The sense of touch is also frequently affected. It’s common for someone with sensory processing disorder to find the sensation of even the softest fabrics on the skin to be amplified, and thus intolerable.

The disorder can also adversely affect spatial awareness. Someone with the disorder can struggle
to be aware of the position of their own limbs and body, and to understand the space around themselves. This can cause the individual to seem clumsy, bumping into objects or appearing to be unsteady on their feet.

The condition can also cause a dampening of the senses. In those cases, it takes a significantly higher degree of a stimulus to have an effect.

The cause of sensory processing disorder is not yet known. A genetic component is suspected, and that is the subject of research. The condition is most often identified during childhood. However, it affects adults as well, and can be diagnosed at an older age. In those cases, it usually turns out that the adult has experienced the symptoms since they were children but developed a series of coping mechanisms that helped them to manage and hide their condition.

Although the range of symptoms in sensory processing disorder is widely recognized, the condition itself is the subject of debate. Some believe it is part of the autism spectrum, or that it is associated with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder. Others argue that it is a diagnosis of its own.

Unfortunately, for those seeking treatment, sensory processing disorder is not a recognized medical diagnosis at this time. That can lead to the problem you have been having in finding help for your daughter. Working with an occupational therapist is considered to be the best approach to managing the symptoms. Treatment is based on each individual’s specific case. One approach is known as sensory integration therapy. The goal is to help the individual recognize and organize incoming information from the senses, and to develop techniques that help them manage their response to sensory input.

You can ask your health care provider for a recommendation for an occupational therapist, or you can find more information at the American Occupational Therapy Association website at aota.org.

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