Sensory processing disorder (also known as sensory integration disorder) is a neurological disorder that makes it difficult for a person’s brain to decode information taken in by the senses. It is a broad diagnosis that encompasses other, better-known disorders, such as autism and ADHD.
Sensory disorders occur on a spectrum, where the middle is “normal” and each end is a different extreme. A person with a sensory disorder can land in different places on the spectrum in different areas. For example, Jonathan is very sensory seeking when it comes to oral stimulation, but avoidant of large amounts of visual or auditory input.
Sensory seeking behaviors can include things like frequently running into walls, wanting to be swung upside down repeatedly, “falling” on purpose and other big movements. They can also include things like singing or talking endlessly, without breaks. Oral seekers tend to chew on toys, bite and suck their thumbs.
Sensory avoidant behaviors include covering the ears, moving away from the center of the action and rocking. A child who has reached his limit will often either shut down completely or have a “meltdown”. Meltdowns, from the outside, look much like tantrums, except that the child is not doing it for attention or to get what he wants. He does it because he has lost control and is just plain terrified.
When a child shows signs of being overwhelmed by sensory input, he should be removed from the situation or the stimulus should be removed. Unfamiliar (or more) people, places or toys can make a child more likely to become overwhelmed. If a child is already beginning to shut down or have a meltdown, there are a variety of tools to be used in helping him calm down, including deep pressure, bear hugs and bouncing on a ball.
Because sensory behaviors are meant to balance sensory input, they should never be punished. Children have to be taught ways to manage the feeling of lost control. Some sensory behaviors, such as twisting hair around a finger are best left alone. That is an “organizing” behavior that helps the child to remain in control.