Oh, THOSE Red Flags: Sensory Processing Disorder

February 22, 2013

When you have a pregnancy that results in the premature birth of your child(ren), you learn pretty quickly to be grateful for every morsel of positive progress. If there’s time before birth, a neonatologist may share with you some worst case scenarios. And by the time you leave the NICU, you feel like you have either won the lottery or narrowly escaped from prison. Some preemies are sent home with an intensive care plan and some do not require monitors, oxygen, feeding tubes, caffeine, follow up surgeries and more. Either way it’s a gift from above to be a home and your baby(s) is nothing short of a miracle.

When my son suffered an umbilical cord accident at 22 weeks and passed away, it sparked the premature birth of his twin sister at 25 weeks, 6 days. Despite being intubated, having an irregular head scan, a PIC line, feeding tube, and several blood transfusions, we were fortunate enough to take my daughter home before her actual due date and with no intensive care plan.

It’s been amazing how little effect prematurity seems to have had on her over the years. Right after she turned five, frustration started to build in our household, though. Why is dressing her such a major event? Why does she say clothes don’t fit right when they clearly do? (Insert 15 minutes of trying to negotiate clothing with her.) Why do her socks have to line up perfectly with her toes and why can’t she allow for a little slipping in the heel of her shoes? (Insert another 15 minutes to talk her into shoes and socks.) Why does she scream like she’s on fire when I brush her hair? (Insert 15 minutes of trying different sprays and brushes and then just give up.) And why won’t she even let us wash her hair in the bathtub when she seems to be having fun otherwise?

Occupational Therapy

Kate, 5, at Occupational Therapy

I’ll tell you why. Because in “Preemie Land” this is how our children tell us that they have a Sensory Processing Disorder. Bless her heart, this went on for quite some time before I asked my sister and stepmom what they thought was going on. As a teacher and physical therapist, they told me to get an Occupational Therapy assessment as soon as possible.

It’s a good thing we did, because the signs we were seeing were the tip of the iceberg compared to the way the disorder was affecting her motor skills. It turned out that visually she lacked binocular vision and depth perception. Her brain also was incapable of allowing the left hand to cross over to the right side of her body and vice versa.

According to the SPD Foundation, “Sensory Processing Disorder can affect people in only one sense–for example, just touch or just sight or just movement–or in multiple senses. One person with SPD may over-respond to sensation and find clothing, physical contact, light, sound, food, or other sensory input to be unbearable. Another might under-respond and show little or no reaction to stimulation, even pain or extreme hot and cold. In children whose sensory processing of messages from the muscles and joints is impaired, posture and motor skills can be affected.

A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively.

Occupational therapy with a sensory integration approach typically takes place in a sensory-rich environment sometimes called the ‘OT gym.’ During OT sessions, the therapist guides the child through fun activities that are subtly structured so the child is constantly challenged but always successful.”

My daughter Kate has been in weekly Occupational Therapy now for six months and the improvement has been dramatic. It affects her self-confidence, she is able to participate in ballet now, and she seems to try new things on the playground without hesitation. If you have any concerns of your own, I sincerely hope you will request an assessment or talk to your pediatrician about one.