What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Have you ever seen a child who appears to be “out of sync” with how they interact with their environment?
It may be that somehow the sensory signals in the brain are not available or they just don’t get organized enough to respond appropriately.
The result is children develop sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding patterns because their nervous systems do not process the sensory input coming into the brain correctly.
Consequently, they manifest over-sensitivity (hyper) and/or under-sensitivity (hypo) reactions or both.
There are eight senses involved in a child’s development which are necessary for processing information:
- Hearing or auditory processing which is connected to language and communication
- Touch or somatosensory or tactile which is touching the skin
- Taste (gustatory)
- Smell (olfactory) having difficulty with food textures and are picky eaters
- Vision, which is how the brain interprets visual input and supports hand/eye coordination
- Vestibular, which is the system that gives a sense of balance and spatial orientation
- Proprioception, which is the muscle and joint movement and sense of self
- Interoception, which is the understanding by the self to feel what is going on inside the body
On a daily basis, sensory processing can create many significant challenges, behaviors and disruptions for these children.
What Your Doctor May Tell You About Sensory Processing Disorder
Your child’s pediatrician may suggest sensory-based therapies such as occupational therapy with sensory integration (SI) as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for your child.
However, your pediatrician may inform you that the amount of research regarding the effectiveness of SI therapy is limited and inconclusive.
He or she may also discuss the limitations of the treatment, suggest a doing a trial period of SI therapy, teach you how to evaluate the effectiveness of this therapy and discuss whether the therapy is actually working to achieve your child’s goals in the treatment plan.
It is not very clear to pediatricians whether children who present with sensory-based problems actually have a “disorder” of the sensory pathways of the brain or whether these deficits are characteristics of other developmental or behavioral disorders.
In fact, your child’s pediatrician will probably make you aware that processing difficulties and issues with tolerating sensory information are characteristics also seen in:
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Attention deficit disorders
- Childhood anxiety disorders
- Developmental coordination disorders
Therefore, most likely your child’s pediatrician will request further testing as well as a thorough evaluation to be more conclusive.
Another Way to Think About Sensory Processing Disorder
When something as routine as a haircut, brushing your teeth, hearing the vacuum, a crowded store, drawing blood, or eating food is an excruciating experience for a child, it is more than likely because they are in pain trying to communicate that their body feels as though it is being attacked by their external environment.
A healthy microbiome is fundamental to all brain functioning and the gut/brain connection needs to be functioning in order to for sensory information to be processed appropriately.
In the brain are chemical messengers that transmit signals from one neuron to another telling the brain and body what to do.
These messengers are called “neurotransmitters” (NT) and they are also located in our gastrointestinal tract which allows for communication with the brain.
Amino acids, which come from protein, feed the NTs and the NTs in turn tell the brain cells how to motor plan, process sensory information, have appropriate behavior, formulate normal muscle tone and so on.
Therefore, implementing ideas listed in our checklist below and removing all stressors may likely dramatically change over time how your child navigates their world.
The good news is that recovery is possible from Sensory Processing Disorder by rebalancing the body and bringing it back to health.
Autism, ADD/ADHD and SPD Comorbidities
Knowledgeable practitioners have found that roughly 30-50% of children with autism, ADD/ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) also have PANS PANDAS.
These are newer diagnoses that your child’s pediatrician or psychiatrist may not be aware of.
They are disorders that are loosely defined as a sudden onset of acute anxiety and mood variability accompanied by OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and/or tics.
PANDAS stands for Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections. With PANDAS, the onset of symptoms is typically preceded by streptococcal -A infection (“strep throat”). However, in some cases, children may not have presented with a full-blown, acute strep throat infection.
PANDAS is included in the larger umbrella of PANS, Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome. PANS includes not only PANDAS, but also diagnoses such as Lyme disease, OCD and ODD.
In addition, it is very common for younger siblings of children diagnosed with autism, ADD/ADHD or Sensory Processing Disorder to be diagnosed themselves with PANS and PANDAS.
If this is the case, consider that your older child may have PANS PANDAS as well.
In many cases, these children have both a PANDAS diagnosis as well as that of Lyme disease.
Another way to think of PANS PANDAS, as well as any neurodevelopmental disorder such as autism, ADD/ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder and even learning disabilities, is that these disorders may fall under the larger umbrella of autoimmune encephalitis (AE).
Autoimmune encephalitis is a disorder in which the immune system attacks the brain, impairing function.
Encephalitis is inflammation and swelling of the brain, often due to infection, which in many of these cases causes an autoimmune attack on the microglia cells of the brain.
A child with this type of damage may typically never have or may lose motor skills and/or the ability to speak, similar to an adult who has had a stroke.
Encephalitis is a common symptom of this type of damage, and it often shows up as an increase in the child’s head-circumference percentile, especially in the first year of life.
The prestigious science journal Nature pointed this out by stating that “brain volume overgrowth was linked to the emergence and severity of autistic social deficits.”
Anti-NDMA Receptor Encephalitis
The N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (also known as the NMDA receptor), is a glutamate receptor found in nerve cells.
It is activated when the amino acids glutamate and glycine bind to it.
NMDA receptors have been implicated by a number of studies to be strongly involved with excitotoxicity, the process by which nerve cells are damaged or killed by excessive stimulation by neurotransmitters such as glutamate.
Excitoxicity can cause encephalopathy and seizures.
Glutamate and its analogs are found in processed foods not only as MSG (monosodium glutatmate), but also in chemical food additives such as:
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Soy protein isolate
- Yeast extract
- Barley malt
- Natural flavoring
- Artificial flavoring
- Soy sauce
Even natural foods such as tomatoes, bone broth and seaweed may naturally have high levels of glutamate.
Strep also increases glutamate in the brain.
Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist to Start
Consider lifestyle contribution:
- Is your child getting 10 hours of sleep per night (or more if your child is under 10)?
- An hour of exercise or movement per day?
- Drinking half his body weight in ounces of water?
Make dietary changes:
Is your child craving and eating primarily a refined carbohydrate, high sugar, trans-fatty acids and fast food diet?
Eliminate all processed foods, and eat a whole foods diet.
- Eat whole foods
- Buy organic foods
- Remove all GMO foods
- Remove all fast and processed foods
- Remove all foods with:
- Artificial colors
- Artificial ingredients
- With an elimination diet, remove potentially inflammatory foods such as:
- Strictly limit:
- Refined salt
- Refined carbohydrates
- Join the Feingold Association www.Feingold.org to learn more.
- Consider implementing a low glutamate diet.
Include plenty of good quality fats, such as:
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Wild salmon
- Organic chicken
- Organic turkey
- Grass-fed ghee
- Pasture-raised eggs
- Grass-fed beef
- Essential fatty acids from:
- Cod liver oil
- Hemp seeds
- Flax seeds
- Evening primrose oil
- Borage oil
- Walnut oil
Remove vegetable oils such as:
Include plenty of high-quality proteins with every meal, such as:
- Pasture-raised eggs and chicken
- Grass-fed beef
- Wild-caught fish
Heal the gut with special diets such as:
- GAPS (Gut And Psychology Syndrome) diet
- Paleo diet
- GF/CF (gluten-free/casein-free) diet
- Body Ecology Diet
- Modified Atkins Diet (replaces the Ketogenic diet)
Learn more about healing diets and foods.
Clean up your environment:
Have you identified and removed possible environmental triggers, such as mold, dust, pet dander, and electromagnetic fields (EMFs)?
Have you identified and removed possible toxic exposures in the home from purchased products, such as detergents, soaps, lotions, and other cleaning and personal care products?
- Remove animals (both live and stuffed!)
- Remove carpets
- Use non-toxic cleaners
- Use non-toxic building materials
- Green your home
Ask your pediatrician to run some laboratory tests for:
- Possible food sensitivities and allergies
- Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) IgG, IgA, IgE and IgM
- Nutritional deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. The NutrEval by Genova Diagnostics Labs covers the following areas:
- Cellular energy
- Mitochondrial metabolism
- Neurotransmitter metabolism
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Toxin exposure
- Detoxification need
- Bacterial and yeast overgrowth
- Gluten and casein sensitivities
- Organic acids: The organic acid test by Great Plains Laboratory for:
- Yeast overgrowth (Candida)
- Other microbial infections
- Comprehensive Stool Analysis by Genova Diagnostic Labs to identify:
- Altered gastrointestinal function
- Bacterial/fungal overgrowth
- Chronic dysbiosis
- Neurotransmitters: Neurorelief (Neurosciences Laboratory) is a specialty lab that tests neurotransmitters to determine chemical imbalances in the brain
- Genetic mutations such as MTHFR, CBS and SUOX, which may interfere with your child’s ability to detoxify
Use homeopathy specific for Sensory Processing Issues
- Nux vomica
- Tarantula hispana
Consider using Schueller’s cell tissue salts, which can be effective as well.
Sequential homeopathy can also be specific for sensory processing symptoms if needed.
Add fermented foods and probiotics daily:
These will keep the gastrointestinal system and microbiome healthy and strong which in turn will keep the immune system strong.
- Eat kefir yogurts
- Eat fermented vegetables
- Eat umeboshi plums (very alkalizing)
- Eat miso soup, if soy is tolerated
Some good probiotics are:
- Gut Pro
- Dr. Ohirra’s Live Cultured Probiotics
- Garden of Life
- Klaire Labs
Use herbs, essential oils and natural supplements with your practitioner’s guidance:
- Zinc picolinate or glycinate
- Cod liver oil
- Omega fatty acids
- Herbal iron
- Methylcobalamin B12
- Neuromins DHA
- Folinic acid or 5MTHF
- Trace minerals
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin B6 (P5P)
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- B vitamins
- Alpha lipoic acid
- Calendula flower essence
- Bergamot essential oil
- Geranium essential oil
- Neroli essential oil
- Lavender essential oil
- Wintergreen essential oil
- Gingko biloba
- Lemon balm
- Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)
- Epsom salt baths
Use digestive aids with your practitioner’s guidance:
- Betaine hydrochloric acid
- Digestive enzymes with DPP-IV for gluten and casein intolerances
- Proteolytic enzymes
Help your child detoxify:
- Ionic foot baths can help detox unwanted pathogens and are easy to do with children
- Infared saunas can detox heavy metals through the skin by sweating. However, this form of detoxification may not be suitable for young children who lack the ability to sweat.
Learn about retained primitive reflexes:
Most, if not all, children with neurodevelopmental disorders including learning disabilities, have retained primitive reflexes.
Find a therapist that is trained in integrating primitive reflexes, which can cause imbalances in the way your child’s brain performs.
See a chiropractic neurologist at a Brain Balance Center:
The Brain Balance program can help balance the right and left brain hemispheres and make neural connections to extinguish primitive reflexes.
See a neurofeedback practitioner:
Neurofeedback is approved as a level-one intervention by the American Academy of Pediatrics for ADD and ADHD, which are learning disabilities.
Even if your child doesn’t have ADD or ADHD, they may still benefit from neurofeedback.
Find a practitioner that can perform a QEEG (quantitative electroencephalograph) brain map first so you can understand how your child’s brain works.
See a sensory-integration occupational therapist (OT):
These OTs address a variety of sensory issues with a child using hands-on equipment.
This type of therapy calms down the nervous system to help integrate the senses and retained reflexes.
Ask about using brushing therapy to calm down the nervous system.
See a chiropractor:
A chiropractor can perform spinal cord adjustments, which can improve communication in the nervous system.
See a craniosacral practitioner:
Craniosacral therapy can reestablish central nervous system functioning.
These practitioners use approaches rich in vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile input and may also do oral motor therapy.
See a behavioral/developmental optometrist:
A developmental optometrist can check for convergence and tracking problems with your child’s vision.
He or she can correct these issues with vision therapy, lens and prisms.
Doing so can improve hand-eye coordination and school performance.
See an auditory therapist:
Many children with learning disabilities have auditory processing problems that may be causing problems with focus and concentration. An auditory therapist can devise a listening program that is specific to your child’s needs.
Auditory Integration Therapy (Berard) or Sound Stimulation (Tomatis) can retrain the brain, calm down the nervous system, reduce sound sensitivities.
Find a therapist doing Brain Gym:
A Brain Gym practitioner can have your child do exercises for sensorimotor coordination, self-calming and self-management.
See a homeopath or naturopath:
These practitioners can diagnose and treat gastrointestinal disorders naturally so that the child’s immune, sensory, neurological and nervous systems develop without being compromised.
See a well-trained acupuncturist:
Acpuncture can help lower stress and anxiety associated with sensory processing.
See a NAET or BioSET practitioner:
Children with Sensory Processing Disorder typically also have food allergies and/or food sensitivities and intolerances. NAET (Namudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique) and BioSET are two non-invasive methods of allergy elimination.
Sensory therapies and tools:
- Super brain yoga
- Rock climbing
- Weighted vests, blanket and belts
- HANDLE therapy
- Sensory Learning
- Tool Chest
- Squeeze Machine
- Music therapy
- Sensory gym
- Deep pressure brushing therapy
- Sensory tactile toys
Still looking for answers?
Aguilera, M., Cerda-Cuellar, M., Martinez, V. Antibiotic-induced dysbiosis alters host-bacterial interactions and leads to colonic sensory and motor changes in mice. Gut Microbes. 2015;6(1):10-23.
Borre, Y.E., et al. Microbiota and neurodevelopmental windows: implications for brain disorders. Trends Mol Med. 2014 Sep;20(9):509-18.
Darling, A.L., et al. Association between maternal vitamin D status in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood: results from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). Br J Nutr. 2017 Jun;117(12):1682-1692.
Hertz-Picciotto, I., et al. Organophosphate exposures during pregnancy and child neurodevelopment: Recommendations for essential policy reforms. PLoS Med. 2018 Oct 24;15(10):e1002671
Biel, Lindsey. Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues. Revised Edition, 2009
Hong, Maria Rickert. Almost Autism: Recovering Children from Sensory Processing Disorder, A Reference for Parents and Practitioners. 2014.
Kranowitz, Carol. The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder. Revised edition. 2006.
Lambert, Beth, et al. Brain Under Attack: A Resource for Parents and Caregivers of Children with PANS, PANDAS, and Autoimmune Encephalitis. Answers Publications, 2018.