Experts believe SPD could be the next ADD

LOS ANGELES Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition that is often mistaken for ADD or OCD. One study finds SPD estimates it impacts 1 in 20 kids, but they're often misdiagnosed.

"Some children may be diagnosed with ADHD who really have SPD," said Dr. Stacey Reynolds, assistant professor at the University of Florida. "They're put on a psycho stimulant medication."

Kids with SPD struggle with any info that comes in through their senses: smells, sights, sounds, tastes, touch, even balance.

"They're really bothered by tags in their clothes, or they're very sensitive to sounds in the environment," says Dr. Reynolds.

At a sensory lab in Florida, play is part of the treatment.

"The swing is going to give them vestibular information, which is going to be where the body is in space, where their head is in space, and it's going to tie into their sense of balance," says Leslie Hiltz, occupational therapist.

"It helps me let out all my energy because I can't do that in class," said 11-year-old Michaela Meyers.

Under guidance of an occupational therapist, special tools help kids get in touch with their senses.

One study found the therapy improved balance and self esteem and reduced anxiety, but experts say they're still searching for proof it works, especially because it can cost up to $175 an hour.

"So, we're not at a point to say, 'No it doesn't work,' but we're really waiting to figure out if we can better say, 'Who does this work for,'" says Dr. Reynolds.

A group of researchers, families and occupational therapists is aggressively lobbying to get SPD included in the next diagnostic edition of the "American Psychiatric Association" manual. If it's included, some insurance companies may cover the cost of therapy.

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Sensory processing is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, SPD is a condition that exists when sensory signals don't get organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapists and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., compared SPD to a neurological "traffic jam" that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. A person with SPD struggles with everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure and other impacts may result if not treated.

Research by the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation found that one in every six children experiences symptoms of SPD that are significant enough to impact their everyday life. "What the gray area has been so far is that sensory processing disorders are seen in a variety of other psychiatric conditions, so we see it in children with autism and ADHD. We also see it in adults who have anxiety disorder," Stacey Reynolds, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Florida, told Ivanhoe. SPD can affect people in only one sense or in multiple senses. One person or child with SPD may over-respond to the sensation of touch. A tag in a shirt might be unbearable for them, or a bright light or loud siren may be overwhelming.


"Some children may be diagnosed with ADHD who really have a sensory processing disorder, so that same child who is very bothered by sounds or is hyper-vigilant to things they see in the environment may look inattentive in school or at home, so the parents take them to a physician and they get a diagnosis of ADHD, and they're put on a psycho-stimulant medication. However, we don't see some of those problems disappear because they don't treat the underlying sensory processing problem," said Dr. Reynolds.


The most common therapy for children diagnosed with SPD is occupational therapy. It typically takes place in a sensory-rich environment, which is sometimes called an "OT gym" under the guidance of a well-trained clinician. The therapist guides the child through fun activities like a swing or a balancing challenge. These activities are subtly structured to activate the senses. The goal is to foster appropriate responses to sensation so the child is able to behave in a more functional manner. Currently, SPD is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. That means it's not always covered by insurance. A group of parents and therapists are lobbying to get SPD included in the official manual that will be revised in 2013.

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