Sensory processing disorder

Q: My son always seems to be in trouble at school. His teacher told me she thinks he has sensory processing disorder. What is that?

A: Many professionals don’t think sensory processing disorder is a valid diagnosis. A. Jean Ayres was an occupational therapist and developmental psychologist. She first wrote about the concept in the early 1970s.

Dr. Ayres believed some children are prone to sensory overload. Their senses overwhelm them. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes or physical contact make them uncomfortable.

In theory, this overload leads to social, emotional and behavior problems. Examples are fidgeting, outbursts of anger and difficult conduct.

Many experts question the diagnosis, however. Kids with autism, attention deficit disorder, and mood disorders develop similar problems. So it’s not clear that a separate label is needed.

Current diagnostic manuals do not list sensory processing disorder as a diagnosis. It is not expected to appear in future manuals either.

Why is it hard to find the right diagnosis for a child? Children change so much as they grow. A disturbing problem in first grade may completely disappear by the second grade.

In fact, diagnosis should not be the goal. The goal is to help a child adjust to school, to learn and to grow.

If you’ve been told your child has sensory processing disorder, seek a second opinion. Find a licensed clinician to assess the problem and make practical suggestions. Your pediatrician may be able to help you find a good person.

That way, you can find the treatment that has the best chances of working.

(Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is a Senior Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publications. He is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Mass.)

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Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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