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Style Magazine

Driven to Distraction

Jul 06, 2011 05:51AM ● By Style

Tucked within the amazing network of our body’s nervous system are millions of neuron “pathways” that allow us to do everything from ride a bike to complete Sunday’s Sudoku challenge without breaking a sweat.

However, for those affected by Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), an estimated one in 20 people, chronic neurological “traffic jams” make performing routine activities an overwhelming daily struggle.

Because their brains are wired differently, children with SPD have difficulty taking in, interpreting and responding appropriately to sensory input from sights, sounds, touch, tastes, smells, movement and/or body position. Left untreated, sensory-challenged kids can experience social isolation, emotional withdrawal, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression and academic failure. Thankfully, innovative treatment (that’s actually fun!) essentially rewires young brains to change lives in a big way.


A relatively new disorder, SPD is often misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as similar behaviors are exhibited. Since treatment of the disorders differ, it’s important to get an accurate SPD diagnosis through screenings, clinical observations and assessments administered by physicians or occupational therapists experienced with SPD.

Sandy Foster is cofounder of SensoryEd, a learning clinic in Roseville that primarily treats SPD. “When parents come to us, they usually are seeing negative behaviors in their child – not being able to follow oral multi-step directions, or maybe acting out as a result of sensory overload,” says Foster. “In classrooms, teachers may see a child who is spaced out, lazy, uninterested or doesn’t care.”

While early childhood diagnosis is best, SPD often isn’t discovered until adolescence. “A lot of times older children have developed coping strategies that make their SPD manageable,” Foster reports. “But when they hit eighth grade or high school where there’s so much more content, or homework they have to focus on for long periods of time, they break down,” she says. Foster encourages parents to learn more about SPD, and says, “We’re finding a lot of children previously diagnosed with ADHD actually have SPD, or may even have both.”


Although the disorder is difficult to identify, innovative treatment is both fun and effective. Better yet, there’s no prescription required. Developed by pioneer occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., SPD treatment largely entails occupational therapy with a sensory integration approach.

Conducted in a colorful “sensory gym” filled with music, balls, ropes, swings and toys, sensory integration therapy stimulates different areas of the brain that are working inefficiently. “We use fun activities like obstacle courses to allow the student’s entire body to experience different ways of processing senses,” explains Michaela Adams, vice president of Learning Works, Inc., in El Dorado Hills and Folsom.


Cognitive tasks are involved as well. “For example, while a student is navigating through a maze or walking a balance beam, we’ll verbally instruct them to name two-syllable words that have to do with summer,” Adams describes. In time, those neuron connections missing in a child with SPD are established. Adams relates the experience to working a new muscle group at the gym. “You get really sore at first, but when you keep going, eventually you’re no longer sore,” she says. “The same goes with retraining the brain.”

When SPD is accurately identified, effective treatment can help “sensational” children form the sensory pathways needed to live normal, happy lives.


  • Over-sensitive to touch, noises, smells or other people.
  • Difficulty dressing, eating, sleeping and/or toilet training.
  • Clumsy; poor motor skills; weak.
  • In constant motion and in everyone else's face and space.
  • Easily distracted, fidgety, craves movement, aggressive.
  • Easily overwhelmed.
  • Difficulty with handwriting or fine motor activities.
  • Difficulty making friends.
  • Unaware of pain and/or other people.