I’ve gathered a room full of people who all have children with ADHD. I ask them, “Does anyone in here have a child with ADHD who is hypersensitive to stimulation–lights, sounds, touches, smells, emotions, etc.? If so, raise your hand.”
Do you know how many hands would go up? More than half of the hands in the room.
While many people assume that their child’s hypersensitivity is merely another symptom of their ADHD, there’s also a big possibility that their hypersensitivity could be coming from something else altogether.
In 2013, scientists at UCSF discovered a physical difference in the brains of a huge percentage of children who are hypersensitive. Those scientists were specifically studying a disorder called “Sensory Processing Disorder” and discovered concrete evidence that it not only exists, but that it makes a person’s brain operate differently.
Sensory Processing Disorder is defined by the Sensory Therapies And Research Center (STARCenter) as “a neurological disorder in which the sensory information that the individual perceives results in abnormal responses.” They also provide us with a more formal definition, which defines Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) as “a neurophysiologic condition in which sensory input either from the environment or from one’s body is poorly detected, modulated, or interpreted and/or to which atypical responses are observed.”
Until recent years, SPD was not recognized as a stand-alone disorder, but rather a sub-disorder of other brain/behavioral disorders like ADHD and Autism. Now, though still widely debated, the most advanced scientific studies prove that SPD is, in fact, a standalone disorder that can exist without any co-occurring disorders.
However, the chances of having SPD are drastically higher in children who have other brain/behavioral/mental health disorders. In regards to ADHD, specifically, the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation reports that “between 40-60% of children who have ADHD also have Sensory Processing disorder.”
So what does SPD look like in a child? How can you tell if yours might or might not have it? Do your child’s symptoms of sensitivity warrant a trip back to the pediatrician?
In May 2013, Parents Magazine published one mom’s personal story of what it was like to have a child with Sensory Processing Disorder. Katie Phelps is the mother of a little boy named Charlie who has SPD but no other disorders. Teachers and caretakers originally suspected his was on the Autism spectrum, but after being evaluated, behavioral therapists determined he was not.
He only had SPD.
Katie reported in that article that SPD manifested in her son with episodes of extreme meltdowns because of things that overstimulated him, such as turning off an electronic toy, getting a haircut, or stopping the wheel of a grocery cart that he’d been watching. (You can read their full story here.)
For my nephew, Felix, who is five years old and has ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorders manifests in the ways he processes sensations. He’s easily overwhelmed by the noises in a grocery store, or the flashing lights of a cop car, or the feel of certain fabrics against his skin. He has complete hide-in-the-corner-and-cry meltdowns over “small” things like that.
Things that most people don’t even pay attention to, but that are completely overwhelming for him.
He also has a hard time processing stimulation such as the urge to go to the bathroom or vomit. For example, most kids can potty train around age 2 or 3 because that’s when start to distinguish the urge to go. Felix, however, couldn’t potty train until much later because he couldn’t feel when his body had to go. His SPD made it really difficult for him to process the bodily sensations.
That’s what SPD looks like in real life. It doesn’t always come along with other disorders, but it often does. If your child has ADHD and struggles with processing stimuli, it might be a good idea for you to reach out to your pediatrician again, just to be safe.
You would not be alone if your child (or you, for that matter) had SPD along with ADHD. About half the ADHD-ers out there do!