Impact and Treatment of SPD


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Children with Sensory Processing Disorder often have problems with skills and other abilities needed for school success and childhood accomplishments. As a result, they almost always suffer from emotional, social, and educational problems, including the inability to make friends or be a part of a group, poor self-concept, academic failure, and being labeled clumsy, uncooperative, belligerent, disruptive, or "out of control." Anxiety, depression, aggression, or other behavior problems can follow. Parents may be blamed for their children's behavior by people who are unaware of the child's "hidden handicap," because the children look “normal” or “typical”, but do not behave typically.

Effective treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder is available, but far too many children with sensory symptoms are misdiagnosed and/or improperly treated. Untreated SPD that persists into adulthood can affect an individual's ability to succeed in marriage, work, and community social environments. For example, in our adult program we have treated Medical Doctors (psychiatrists, and dermatologists) who have successful practices but are unhappy personally. SPD creates tremendous stress for families who live with this “hidden handicap.”  Research by Alice Carter and her team suggests that families of children with SPD have more serious impairments than families of children with diagnosed disorders such as anxiety disorder, autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder and other established disorders (Carter, Ben-Sasson, & Briggs-Gowan, 2011). We believe this is due in part to the disorder not being recognized officially so there are few support groups, and parents are often led to feel the problems are their “fault.”  Our mission to advocate for true recognition of this disorder is urgent so that families who live with SPD can have a higher quality of life.

Intervention for Sensory Processing Disorder 

Most children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are just as intelligent as their peers. Many are intellectually gifted. (In a study at the Gifted and Talented Center in Denver 550 children were screened for sensory differences.  We found that 33% of these children had significant SPD symptoms.) Their brains are simply wired differently. They need to be taught in ways that are adapted to how they process information, and they need leisure activities that suit their own sensory processing needs.

Once children with Sensory Processing Disorder have been accurately diagnosed, they benefit from a treatment program of occupational therapy (OT) with a regulation, relationship, and sensory integration (SI) approach. We call our approach the STAR Model, to differentiate it from “pure SI” often called Ayres sensory Integration® and from DIR/Floortime (see  When appropriate and applied by a well-trained clinician, listening therapy (such as Integrated Listening Systems) or other complementary therapies (Interactive Metronome, the Astronaut program) may be combined effectively with the STAR Model approach.  Although, we are not advocates of following protocols in general because all children with SPD are so different and have distinct individual needs, we do use elements of many protocols (such as Wilbarger’s brushing protocol) in our approach. We use clinical reasoning to figure out what does work and what makes a difference, and we build a program to fit each child’s needs and strengths.

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.

The goal of Occupational Therapy is to foster appropriate responses to sensation in an active, meaningful, and fun way so the child is able to behave in a more functional manner. Over time, the appropriate responses generalize to the environment beyond the clinic including home, school, and the larger community. Effective occupational therapy thus enables children with SPD to take part in the normal activities of childhood, such as playing with friends, enjoying school, eating, dressing, and sleeping.  Whenever possible we engage children in a natural setting such as our sensory playground, our sensory garden, and our group programs. The more children with SPD are engaged in natural settings, the more generalization of their outcomes to regular life activities in home, school, and community settings we see.

At STAR Institute we believe that the Occupational Therapy children receive for SPD must be family-centered. Parents are involved and work with the therapist in every session to learn more about their child's sensory challenges and methods for engaging their children in therapeutic activities. Every 5th or 6th session is for parents only! Parents always come in requesting a "sensory diet," but we have found that the sensory diet is rarely available when the parents need it. Thus, we prefer to think about a ‘sensory lifestyle’ in which the parents have skills at problem solving what their child needs at any particular moment at home and elsewhere.  We use A SECRET methodology (Bialer & Miller, 2011) to create programs for families. We use Goal Attainment Scaling (Kiresuk, T. J., Smith, A., Cardillo, J. E., 1994) so that families have the opportunity to communicate their own priorities for treatment.

Treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder helps parents and others who live and work with sensational children to understand that Sensory Processing Disorder is real, even though it is "hidden". With this assurance, they become better advocates for their child at school and within the community.

For detailed information about our unique treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder, go to: STAR Institute Treatment Center.