Early Childhood Developmental Disorders – Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Trauma Exposure, and Anxiety

Sensory Processing Disorder and Related Diagnoses

Differentiating between sensory processing disorder, ADHD, learning disorders, autism, anxiety, and early trauma exposure requires diagnostic skill and accuracy. Once clear about your child’s diagnosis, this knowledge is essential in developing the right treatment plan for your child. Read on to learn interventions drawn from child-centered play therapy and occupational therapy that can help your child with the tantrums, challenging transitions, and anxieties associated with early childhood developmental disorders.

Sensory Processing and the Brain

Historically, sensory processing symptoms were not considered to comprise a standalone diagnosis. Rather sensory challenges were thought of as symptom indicating another diagnose in the same way a fever was a symptom but a virus or an infection was the cause. However, a 2013 study out of UC San Francisco, revealed that sensory processing disorder is linked to quantifiable differences in brain structures and has a biological basis differentiated from other childhood disorders.neurons

Underlying all our sensory systems is the vestibular system which functions within the inner ear which takes in information about our relationship to movement and gravity and provides ongoing feedback between mind and body about where we are in space. The vestibular system gets information from the body through proprioceptors, sensory neurons located within the joints of the body. This sensory feedback helps to organize the the information we receive from the world and how we respond. If we cannot orient to where we begin and end in space we tend to feel anxious. When in fight/flight activation it is difficult to pay attention, learn new information, and communicate effectively about our experience. The brain hijacks higher functioning learning systems and engages lower brain resources as if we are experiencing immediate threat. For a child, this can become a repeated habit repeatedly wiring the brain for survival.

Differential Diagnosis

Sensory Processing Disorder has its own biological and neurological underpinnings; however, our sensory system is complexly intertwined with the neurological mechanisms responsible for spatial awareness, attention, language processing, emotional regulation, and learning. Therefore, sensory processing disorder often accompanies other disorders such as:

  • Speech and language delayschild with dyslexia
  • Dyslexia (reading learning disorder)
  • Dyspraxia (movement and coordination difficulties)
  • Dysgraphia (handwriting difficulties)
  • ADHD and difficulties with focus, attention, hyperactivity, and self-regulation
  • Autism and difficulties with social emotional communications
  • Anxiety and heightened fight/flight nervous system activation
  • Children with early trauma, neglect or attachment disruption often develop sensory integration challenges

Knowing the right combination of symptoms and diagnoses allows you to target the right kind of treatment and to avoid unnecessary ones. For example, SPD can contribute to inattention and hyperactivity but medications that treat ADHD may worsen symptoms, create further agitation, or simply be unnecessary. Recognizing and addressing the underlying nervous system activation often helps children with SPD learn how to focus their minds for learning. If you have a child with multiple diagnoses it is important that all professionals understand the role that sensory processing is playing for the child. A teacher, speech pathologist, or psychologist who can integrate tools for sensory integration can make greater progress towards their learning treatment goals. For example, the speech pathologist working with my son had him wear a weighted vest that helped him feel his body. As a result he could have greater control of his mouth when learning new speech sounds.

Treating Sensory Processing Disorder

Once clear about your child’s diagnosis this knowledge is essential in coordinating efforts among your child’s treatment team. You know your child best and can help teachers and other professionals working with your child understand your child’s sensory world. Here are some interventions drawn from play therapy and occupational therapy that I have found helpful:jumping

  • Create a “sensory diet” for your child. A sensory diet provides your child with regular exercises tailored to meet his or her sensory needs. Examples include skin brushing, jumping on a mini-tramp, listening therapies, and eye exercises. Integrate sensory tools into your child’s school environment by having the teacher provide noise cancelling headphones in your child’s classroom or limit unnecessary sensory stimuli when possible.
  • Understand your child’s triggers. Recognize when they are in fight/flight and emphasize emotion regulation strategies that help them express emotions in healthy and safe ways. Help your child’s teachers and treatment providers recognize these triggers also so they can be aware of the early signs of dysregulation and hopefully avoid the big meltdown.
  • Develop routines. Routines are a way to create more safety and predictability around tricky transitions such as leaving the house or going to bed. Talk your child through these routines and transitions so that they can develop an internal dialogue for themselves.
  • Create a “safe” learning environment. In order to learn, children need to feel safe. When it comes to sensory sensitivity, it is important to reduce distractions such as background noises, visual stimuli, or social interactions that create anxiety. Integrate a body-centered practice such as brain gym before homework sessions, use weighted blankets over your child’s lap when reading together.
  • Integrate play therapy interventions into your home.  Create regular child-centered play times that let your child be in charge while you offer your reflective and attuned presence. Turn off the phone and the computer. Show how you feel when your child behaves in an out of control fashion and model self-regulation techniques.

Further Reading:

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Meet Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Meet Dr. Arielle Schwartz

As a psychologist and mother of two, my passion is to teach parents how to integrate the tools of play therapy into your home and through clinical supervision, teach other clinicians how to support families with highly sensitive children. I understand the unique challenges parents can face in raising sensitive children and specialize in working with children with sensory processing disorders, speech/language delays, anxiety, challenging behaviors, trauma exposure, and emotional problems.

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.


Early Childhood Developmental Disorders – Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Trauma Exposure, and Anxiety — 6 Comments

  1. I am looking for an occupational therapist for my son who is 6 with ADHD and some sensory processing issues. I am particularly interested in getting help in Longmont Colorado if it is available. I have united healthcare.

    • Most treatments for Sensory Processing include integration movements for the body and brain. Often these interventions involve a sensory diet such as vestibular stimulation and exercises that build proprioception. There is no harm in these treatments and in fact doing is generally helpful for individuals without SPD too.

  2. My daughter is 9. She is dealing with spd, and is taking adhd medication, and has been since she was 4. She is a totally different girl off the medication and she seems to be a lot more happy, but makes a lot of weird noises and has a hard time focusing, but she’s herself! I’m little concerned tho. Is she taking a med she shouldn’t be on, does she even have adhd? Her sensory issues and being on med, she so unhappy, she’s so angry and cries a lot, which is understandable with the loud noises and lights too bright, and headaches everyday. Just concerned about the adhd med. I just read that with spd that it could worsen on it. How do you know?

  3. I am an occupational therapist specializing in mental illness and sensory integration. I think it’s great that you are so knowledgeable about sensory processing and some interventions for it, but I would like to point out that there are some problems with the above information. For instance, a parent should never create a sensory diet on their own or they could inadvertently cause harm to the child. A sensory diet should only be created in collaboration with a trained and experienced occupational therapist or other professional similarly educated about sensory integration. I am not trying to be rude, only to advise caution when informing the general public about specific treatment ideas.

    • Cindy,
      Thank you for taking the time to write in and express your concerns. I am a huge supporter (and referrer to) occupational therapists. We started there with both of my children and I currently work in collaboration with an OT who is down the hall. What I have found is that not all OTs are informed about sensory integration (just as not all psychologists are either). Many people contact me from around the country with their difficulty in finding practitioners in their area. My goal is to empower people with information but certainly not to create any harm in doing so. I appreciate your perspective.
      Dr. Arielle Schwartz

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