All kids with ADHD have difficulty blocking out distractions and regulating their behavior in stimulating environments. Some kids with ADHD may also experience sensory processing problems that exacerbate these symptoms. Sensory processing problems and sensory processing disorder are not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5), but sensory processing symptoms are widely recognized by clinicians and educators as part of the clinical picture for many kids with ADHD (as well as kids with anxiety or autism spectrum disorders). If your child struggles with sensory processing challenges, being aware of these difficulties can help you understand, predict, and manage your child’s behavior and reactions in triggering situations.
What are sensory processing problems?
“Sensory processing” is a broad term that is used to describe a person's ability to absorb sensory information (sights, sounds, tastes, textures, smells), regulate the intensity of a sensation, and respond appropriately. Kids with sensory processing problems can be under responsive and respond to signals in the environment slowly, lethargically, or passively, or they can be over responsive and have an exaggerated response to signals (e.g., be hyperaware of background noise, feeling highly irritated by a texture or sound, melting down in overly stimulating situations).
What causes sensory processing problems?
While the exact cause of sensory processing problems is not known, there appears to be a strong genetic or biological influence. Sensory processing difficulties are more common among kids with autism spectrum disorders or those who display some autism traits, and boys are more like to experience sensory processing problems than girls.
How do sensory processing problems affect a child's functioning?
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, sensory processing problems can impact every aspect of a child’s life. Socially, they can interfere with a child's ability to attend or enjoy events that are noisy or crowded, focus on conversations in busy settings, or play comfortably in places that other kids often gravitate toward (e.g., sandboxes, grassy lawns, noisy indoor play spaces, etc.). Extreme reactions to situations, sounds, and textures that are difficult to tolerate can seem strange to other children and can have a negative impact on their relationships with peers. These extreme reactions can also cause behavior that seems oppositional or difficult to parents, leading to stress and strain for the entire family. Academically, difficulty blocking out or tolerating background noise can make it difficult for kids to focus throughout the school day and can interfere with learning.
How are sensory processing problems treated?
Unlike disorders that are classified in the DSM, there are currently no evidence-based treatments for sensory processing problems or sensory processing disorder. Identification and diagnosis of these problems is often done via an assessment with an occupational therapist. Treatments are typically tailored to the individual needs of each child and can involve a variety of movement and sensory-based interventions designed to improve sensory modulation capabilities. Treatment can also include changes to the child's environment at home or at school that minimize exposure to aversive sensory triggers. However, the true effectiveness of these interventions is unknown due to limited research in this area.
Do kids outgrow the problem?
It is difficult to predict whether a child’s sensory processing problems will improve over time. For many kids, particularly those with more mild symptoms, there may be improvement even with no intervention. For others, there may be only modest changes in their symptoms over time. However, even if a child's sensory processing problems do improve in the long term, the short-term impact can be long lasting if they interfere with a child’s ability to develop essential academic or social skills.
If you suspect that your child may be struggling with sensory processing problems, reach out to your pediatrician or school counselor and request an evaluation by an occupational therapist or other provider who specializes in sensory evaluations.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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