Sensory Processing Issues versus Sensory Processing Disorder
What's the difference between sensory processing issues and sensory processing disorder? As Lindsey Biel and I described in our book Raising a Sensory Smart Child, sensory processing disorder is when sensory sensitivities and atypical sensory processing are so challenging that the individual experiences significant dysfunction in activities of daily living (ADL, as occupational therapists call it).
For a child, ADL means what our kids do at home, at school, and away. Lindsey talked about this in detail in a recent FutureTech podcast, explaining that sensory issues can be mild for your child but if you add on sensory irritation after sensory irritation, you can get to that point where it's all too much. That's when sensory overload happens. As an OT, Lindsey assesses kids for sensory issues and sets up a custom sensory diet of daily activities that helps an individual child avoid sensory overload. (In fact, I recently gave a few examples of sensory diet activities on The Sanity Shack.)
Sensory overload is no fun for the parent or the child. The good news is that over time, a sensory diet can build the brain's neural networks for processing sensory input more typically, reducing the risk of sensory overload, which can look like a meltdown or a shut down.
For my son as a toddler and preschooler, shut downs often looked like him lowering himself to the ground, lying flat on the back, and not answering questions about what was wrong and not getting up even though I pleaded with him. He had sensory processing disorder, but as challenging as his sensory issues were, typically, he could handle, say, the sound of an emergency vehicle's siren blaring as it drove down an avenue a few blocks away. However, if he'd had a long day of sensory input that was stressful for him to handle, by the time that fire truck roared down the avenue with its siren wailing, his nervous system was done. He got comfort from lowering himself to the dirty sidewalk, lying flat, and not moving. Fortunately, we had clean clothes and a shower at home, and I knew to sit with him until his system came "back online" and he could handle getting back up and walking home with me.
As a sensory smart parent, I learned to tune out intrusive and even obnoxious comments from passersby (not my circus, not my monkeys was my motto—I knew my job was to be present and calm with my son when he was in sensory overload until he recovered). I learned, too, to pay attention to the signs that I'd packed too much into our day. Journaling about his sensory issues helped. Reducing his stressors did, too, as did giving him heavy work to keep him regulated and able to handle the sensory onslaught of living and playing in New York City where were lived the time.
When it comes to sensory processing issues vs. sensory processing disorder, remember that sensory issues are on a spectrum. Even if your child doesn't qualify for a sensory processing disorder diagnosis after an evaluation by an occupational therapist, pediatric neurologist, developmental pediatrician, or other qualified professional who evaluates for sensory processing disorder, you can help your child manage her sensory issues and avoid sensory overload.
Want to know more about sensory issues, sensory processing disorder, evaluations for sensory issues, and how to help your kiddo who has sensory issues? Buy a copy of Raising a Sensory Smart Child today. And don't forget to check out my article on sensory processing issues and a sensory diet at The Sanity Shack!