Growing up, Dr. Sarah Schoen’s older brother didn’t like to be hugged or touched. It was something she always noticed, but never really understood.
Years later, working as an occupational therapist, she came across Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). She wondered if her brother’s premature birth and early months spent in the neonatal intensive care unit without “tactile normalized sensory experiences,” had anything to do with his later behavior.
This question led to her current work as research director at the STAR Institute based in Greenwood Village. SPD research is a growing field within occupational therapy, but the diagnosis isn’t a part of the standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) used by most pediatricians, psychologists, counselors, and social workers. Still, limited studies have shown that 5 to 16 percent of kids from kindergarten to early middle school exhibit some sort of sensory challenges. We recently asked Dr. Schoen about her 17 years of research on SPD.
Colorado Parent: What is SPD?
SS: Our senses give us information about our body and the environment. Sensations flow into the brain where they are organized to move, learn, and be productive. When well-organized or integrated, the sensations are used for behavior and learning; when disorganized, life can be very challenging. What might make it challenging in terms of being a parent and seeing atypical responses in your kiddo is figuring out: Is this indicative of a clinical disorder or is this just an idiosyncrasy that can be adapted to?
CP: What are you finding in your research at the STAR Institute?
SS: There are two streams that are emerging. (First), research is suggesting that sensory and motor abnormalities may actually precede, (or) be the first signs of, the full blown expression of some psychopathology: in particular, some developmental disorders like ADHD, dyslexia, and autism.
The second stream is the role of sensory processing in general health and wellness across the lifespan—the recognition that we’re all sensory and that we all have sensory differences. The more we can learn about our sensory differences, the more productive we can be in daily life, whether it’s in the workplace, at home, or at school.
CP: How is SPD different from developmental disorders like ADHD and autism?
SS: What we know now is that close to 90 percent of children with autism have sensory features and probably closer to 40 percent of children with ADHD have sensory issues. And the senses are also foundational to the motor system. So it’s not just sensory processing, but, in many cases it’s a sensory motor disorder. For example, getting dressed in the morning can be a real challenge for kids who have these sensory motor impairments.
Sensory issues can exist independent of other clinical disorders. Granted, there’s a lot of research that needs to be done, but there still is preliminary information out there that shows there are some brain mechanisms that are functioning differently in a population of kids who don’t qualify for another diagnosis. To me, if sensory features are an early marker for a potential disorder, it speaks to the importance of providing interventions early.
CP: Explain more about interventions.
SS: The foundation of the intervention that we use (at STAR Institute) is called sensory integration, which occurs within the context of play. So we have a big gym, there are swings, climbing structures, different tactile experiences. It’s a multisensory environment in which the child engages in play activities that target their unique sensory features. The interventions are very effective. From our research we’re finding that it remediates a lot of their social-emotional impairments and improves coordination.
CP: What’s your advice for parents who either suspect or just received a SPD diagnosis for their child?
SS: Parents should know that it is real, that they didn’t cause it, and their child won’t grow out of it. I think people worry: Is it something that I’ve done as a parent? Am I not a good parent? It’s well documented (that some kids) have physiological differences in the way that they process sensory information.
My first recommendation would be to find an occupational therapist who’s trained in working with children who have sensory issues. It’s the therapist working with the child, but within the context of the family. All of our parents are always involved in the treatment session so they fully understand how they can support their child, how they can adapt things in their environments, and how to create what we call a sensory lifestyle for the family and for the child at home.