Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sensory Processing Difficulties - Understanding the Family Dilemma

With the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders on the rise, let's focus on understanding the accompanying sensory processing issues. Although sensory processing difficulties are a symptom of Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder and Asperger's Syndrome, every person can experience processing difficulties throughout life.

Also known as sensory integration, it refers to the way individuals respond to and process sensations. Our brains are constantly processing input from our sense organs (smell, touch, taste, hear, see and feel), even when we sleep. We usually don't notice the process, until it functions adversely. For example, all we need to do to overload our sensory system is navigate a shopping cart through a large grocery or house wares store. The overhead music plays while videos blare, smells rise and blend into one another, fans blow hot or cold air and overly helpful employees repeatedly pop out to greet us while we try desperately to stay in the left part of the brain so that we can get what we came for. Whew! By the time we get through the checkout, trapped between loud videos and beeping registers, we are feeling common symptoms of sensory overload: nervousness, simmering anger, headache and nausea. Now imagine how hard that must be for a small child or someone whose sensory system has difficulty processing the onslaught of stimulation.

Children have not yet developed the brain connections to tell us that they need to get away from the overwhelming stimulation. Instead, they scream, tantrum, run away or have potty accidents. Sensory overload triggers the primitive brain function of fight, flight or freeze and the body reacts without thought. The only goal is to survive, which temporarily hijacks the brain's executive functions, disabling logic, memory (retention and recall) and decision making processes.

For most of us, all we have to do is reduce or eliminate the excess sensory stimulation and the problem is solved. Usually our brains can sort it all, without conscious thought. Unfortunately, this task is much more complicated for someone when sensory processing difficulties are part of a disorder.

The entire family is affected when everyone is held hostage by the anticipation and prevention of rages or ear-piercing shrieks. Even the child feels helpless while he seeks to manipulate his world and the family system to avoid sensory issues. Often seen as behavior problems, these actions may actually help regulate the sensory system and bring it into balance. For the most part, behavior modification techniques do not work; the dysfunctional behavior is the result of a struggling brain process, not a goal-oriented choice.

When a family has a member with sensory processing issues, the choices are to continue living each day feeling powerless in a rage-reaction lifestyle or seek professional help. A neurologist is best qualified to make a diagnosis if Autism or Asperger's Syndrome is suspected. A specially trained pediatric occupational therapist (OT) can diagnose and treat Sensory Processing Disorder. A counselor who has experience with sensory processing issues can address the related anxiety and specific parenting techniques, which brings much needed relief to the family.

Generally, the whole family benefits by getting involved in the change process. An experienced counselor can help re-balance the parental power structure, lessen anxiety and resentment among siblings and coordinate treatment options with the school or daycare facility. Changing the way a brain functions takes time, commitment and active teamwork, which may frustrate parents who want a quick fix.

Lastly, remember to look for support from other parents who live with similar conditions. You can find support groups, information and professional referrals by accessing websites focusing on Sensory Processing Disorder, Asperger's Syndrome and Autism.

Sharon Cuff, MA counsels parents and children in Newtown Square, PA. She has over 25 years experience working with adults and children of all ages, stages and abilities. Call for an appointment at 484-437-0080 and visit her website at

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