The DSM-V and Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Almost everything a person does from playing a sport, eating, washing, writing, or taking a drink requires integration of the senses to make these activities successful.

Dr. Jean Ayres was the first person to coin the term Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses. SPD Foundation research has found that 1 in every 20 children experiences symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder that are significant enough to affect their ability to participate fully in everyday life.

Those of us who live and work with people on the autism spectrum know that SPD is often part of the autism profile. Sensitivity to light, sound, certain fabrics, food textures, oral motor difficulties which makes eating difficult, struggles with handwriting, and balance issues can make the simplest things which come automatic to most people a huge challenge for those with SPD. These difficulties can often lead to anxiety issues, challenging behavior, poor academic performance and isolation from peers.

I can remember an incident that my daughter Julia had two years ago in school. Julia is quite auditory defensive. The fire alarm went off unexpectedly and her first response was to cover her ears and hide under her desk. She was left behind in the school – good thing there was not a real fire that day! The whole incident made me furious because I had explained many times Julia’s auditory sensitivities and how that could impact both her learning and safety. It fell on “deaf” ears.

So why have SPD in the DSM V? If SPD is recognized as a disorder, it may mean insurers cover the therapy. Therapy provided by an occupational therapist and/or physiotherapist is costly. Sometimes special aids are needed like noise blocking headphones and the cost of such items may be covered. If listed in the DSM V, scientists may conduct research into SPD’s causes and treatments. The Food and Drug Administration may approve medications that can be marketed for it.

How will this change the lives of families who live with SPD? Well, the disorder is legitimized and is no longer an “all in your head” diagnosis. Professionals have a label and a protocol within which to work. Funding may be available for school and therapy programs. Doctors may see the red flags in an infant such as poor sleeping and eating habits, resistance to cuddling, arching away when held, and no ability to self soothe. (I experienced all of this with my son when he was a baby and when I asked my doctor about these signs, I was told I was a panicky first-time mother.)

The general public can go to the DSM V website and add comments on any of the proposed additional disorders or conditions that are being added to the manual. I would encourage people to do so that their experiences and research can be heard. It is often parents who are the most observant when it comes to their own child. Help to give this real disorder a place in the new DSM V.

Suggesting Reading on Sensory Processing Disorder:

Building Bridges Through Sensory Integration

The Out-Of-Sync Child

Sensational Kids

For Teens: The Sensory Team Handbook

For Children: Arnie and His School Tools or Why Does Izzy Cover Her Ears?

For more information on attending a conference about SPD, click here.

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  1. Don’t give up! Sensory issues do present in those with ASD and it needs to be addressed. We have lots of sensory articles on our website as well as links to other sensory resources.

  2. Elizabeth Hernandez says:

    I thank you….I thought I was going crazy. What I am trying to accomplish for my son…has been done. It can be done. I’m not giving up. Thanks

  3. Samantha Skroits says:

    Sensory Processing Disorder is not a disorder. It is a term coined by occupational therapist Jean Ayres. There is no way to differentiate between childhood anxiety, ADHD, emotional & behavioral problems (compare symptoms on an ADHD and Anxiety checklist and you will see the same symptoms)!  The sensory processing profile and sensory processing measure are subjective and unmeasurable interview type questionnaires for teachers and parents. And, once administered, every single child ends up having SPD. It is a huge money maker for the publishers of these two profiles. SPD is not measurable, which is precisely why the American Pediatricians have taken a stand (see their position statement ) Autism, ADHD and Anxiety coexist together; and sadly Autism is a neurological condition that has pervasive developmental delays; it is not curable, even with All the tools and strategies prescribed by an OT. SPD cannot be researched because it’s unmeasurable. Give a child with autism a routine with a “sensory diet” and guess what? Because they tend to  do best with “strict adherence to rules” , and if the structured routine includes watching a movie as part their routine, it is likely to have the same affect as the Wilbarger Protocol, wearing a weighted vest, being pulled on a scooter board. Good luck!  I’m in support of the non inclusion of this in the DSM-5 and American Pediatricians. As an OT, it’s time to take a stand and stop this “sensory” nonsense. 

  4. Lincy Philip OT says:

    Ms. Maureen Bennie , I work with children and adolescents with various neuro- developmental disorders in South India. After reading that you have penned over 200 articles and authored several books, I was wondering if you could share your knowledge and material. I am trying to develop information material and leaflets for families for our local population. your wealth of experience as a resource person and above all as a mother of 2 children with autism, I think, will be very valuable. Hope to hear from you. 

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