Sensory Integration Disorder, Wild or Wilting Child?

By Belinda Williams, OTR, SIPT

You would not believe the stories, unless of course you had seen it for yourself.  One mother feared for her 4 year old child’s life because she climbed constantly.  Not just the sofa, and any fence she could get to, but even book shelves and kitchen counters which she reached by opening the oven door to use as the first step.  She often jumped down without fear of pain or punishment before mom could reach her.  Another mother told me of how her child was constantly putting “everything” in his mouth.  Worse than that, her son would hit the ground belly first to gently rub his lips back and forth against the rough gravel embedded black top.

Sometimes we just notice that these children are hyperactive; always spinning, jumping or wrestling.  Other children with the same disorder are extremely subdued and avoid all physical challenges including writing, or they may cover their ears at the slightest loud or sudden noise.  It’s a world of extremes ranging from wild to wilting.

Responses such as “He’s just a boy. She’s just difficult.  Don’t worry he’ll grow out of it.”  are of little consolation for frustrated parents in search of answers.  We all worry when we see disturbingly odd behavior in our children.  We live in a time when we want the doctor to name the condition, and recommend a treatment.  Unfortunately doctors have widely varying levels of knowledge about this neurological condition which is often the culprit; Sensory Integration Disorder (DSI).  The acronym is so ordered to avoid any confusion with SIDS.  It is also referred to as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).  Its occurrence is suspected to exceed 14% of children in the US according to Dr. Lucy Miller a well known researching Occupational Therapist.1   

Sensory Integration Disorder, The symptoms

This condition is characterized by markedly different sensory perception which negatively influences behavior, ability to attend, learn and develop work and play skills at the expected age appropriate level.  Any combination of sensory input including sight, smell, sound, taste, touch, movement, body awareness can be experienced as too much input or not enough.  For some children there is a fluctuation of perception or a modulation disorder which makes sensory driven behavior seem to be “off and on”.

These children find it challenging to manage tasks, interaction with others and their environment.  Transitioning from one activity to the next is difficult and even worse when moving from one environment to another.   For some, waking up is just as difficult as going to bed, getting into the car is a feat, but so is getting out.  Frustration becomes the common denominator.

Besides difficulty with transitions here are other symptoms that come with Sensory Integration Disorder: Under or overly sensitive to sight, smell, sound, taste (tastes/textures), touch, movement, deep pressure input to the body (i.e. hugs, tasks requiring strength).  Also; easily distracted, unusually high or low activity level, impulsive, inability to calm self, social/emotional problems; physical clumsiness or what seems to be obvious carelessness, delays in speech/language or motor skills, academic delays or poor self concept. The condition is not likely to be identified as SPD or DSI unless there was neurological trauma or a contributing condition during gestation or around the time of birth and there must be at least two of these symptoms present and interfering with their ability to function on a consistent basis.

Some diagnoses that are often co-existent with SPD are Autism, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, ADD, ADHD, Coordination Disorder, Speech Delays, Tourette’s or Regulatory Disorder which is often described as colicky baby.  Occasionally children are misdiagnosed or under-diagnosed and only the most obvious condition is addressed by a clinician or practitioner.  Limited progress in efforts to treat these related problems is often the result of having missed the additional diagnosis of SPD.  Treatment for SPD must accompany treatment for co-existing problems.

Sensory Integration Disorder: Getting help for your child

For help, a licensed occupational therapist (OT) who has training in evaluation and treatment SPD is recommended.  Some have been certified in standardized testing and diagnosis of Sensory Integration Disorder.  If your child is affected at school you can usually get guidance about available OT services through your school district.   Your doctor can also refer you to an occupational therapist for testing or, you can refer your child directly to an agency or clinic for testing.

Concerned about your child reaching the appropriate milestones for his/her age? Please download our Developmental Milestones chart here.

Belinda Williams is employed by THERAPY 2000 as the Executive Director of Quality Management and Education.  She holds more than 25 years experience as a licensed Occupational Therapist and is certified in Sensory Integration evaluation and treatment. This article was been published in the North Texas Kids, November ’07.

THERAPY 2000 is a leading home health agency serving the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex.  They employ a number of occupational therapists who provide in-home testing and treatment of children with such disabilities.

Recommended Reading on this subject:

1Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder by Lucy Jane Miller, Doris A. Fuller

The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz, MA

Answers to Questions Teachers Ask about Sensory Integration: Forms, Checklists, and Practical Tools for Teachers and Parents – Jane Koomar

Understanding Regulation Disorders of Sensory Processing in Children – Aileen Stalker

Sensory Integration: A Guide for Preschool Teachers – Christy Isbell

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