"The Sensory Sensitive Child": Information And Solutions For Children With DSI (now known as SPD)
Imagine a child's world without basic senses: hearing noises, tasting foods, seeing a familiar face, feeling textures or smelling scents. These are foundations of rich childhood memories. Worse yet, imagine the opposite. What if one, or all, of these senses were on such a high, turbo-charged setting that even the slightest whiff of, say, pancakes on the griddle caused a gagging reflex?
Or, if a kid were bumped
into, the bump felt less like an accident and more like an attack? Most
children navigate through the physical world without giving it much
thought. They get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush their teeth, play
at the park, tumble with other kids, eat lunch and then nap. What a
But a child with dysfunctional sensory integration has a hard time coping
with basic tasks, such as wearing a shirt, because, as one 4-year-old girl
said, "It's too spicy inside." Brushing teeth or washing hair can turn
into a wrestling match, leaving parents exhausted and kids frustrated.
Toilet training is a nightmare.
The way our senses interact with our body and brain is extraordinary. But
children with sensory problems "vacillate between states of over- and
under-stimulation." As a result, they tend to withdraw to avoid
uncomfortable situations or, if pushed, may act petulant or bad.
Dysfunctional sensory integration has been on the occupational therapist's
map for decades. But until recently, the psychological and medical world
has misunderstood or ignored what could be a key ingredient in the
diagnosis and treatment of children who miss developmental milestones or
demonstrate odd or "naughty" behavior.
These are kids who end up in the school office, take their parents to the
end of their rope, get teased by their "friends," get diagnosed with
attention deficit disorder or even a conduct disorder. But they don't get
better with medicine, psychological treatment, school support and loving
parents: the gold standard of care.
Is the diagnosis and treatment of DSI/SPD the missing notch on the key
that will unlock the door for these often isolated children?
Karen Gouze, a child psychologist, was Karen Smith's clinical supervisor
at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago in 1984. The two women, then in
their mid-20s, became best friends and worked side by side for five years
treating children and their families.
Now years later, married, still practicing child psychology and living in
different states, the two had given birth to sons a few years apart. It
was soon clear that both boys had serious sensory processing problems. Yet
the mom-experts were frustrated with the answers they were getting from
their own profession and the medical community. Their boys were just not
"We were using all that we knew as psychologists and advocates for kids,"
Smith said at a recent psychotherapy conference in Washington. "We had to
look beyond traditional medicine and into the occupational therapy world
to find the missing link. Both of our kids are doing very well after
putting treatment for DSI into the equation."
The child psychologists, now 20 years into their careers working as
clinicians and professors of psychology at Northwestern (Gouze) and the
University of Georgia (Smith), teamed up to write "The Sensory-Sensitive Child: Practical Solutions for Out-of-Bounds Behavior
(HarperCollins, $24.95). Both strongly believe that a significant number
of children are in trouble because they are not diagnosed with that
missing link - they just can't process basic sensory information.
The book balances stories from parents with information on brain function
and sensory processing difficulties. Their "sense-able parenting"
approaches have been tested and work.
But where is the research? Since 1995, Lucy Miller, associate professor of
pediatrics at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, has been
doing the world's only research on this newly explored disorder. Two years
ago, Miller received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to add
three more labs around the country. But her funding is drying up. Her
mission is twofold: To show that DSI is real and should be listed in the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And to show that
"We have pilot data that shows that kids with DSI respond well to
occupational therapy," Miller said in a phone interview. "But we need more
funding to investigate treatment plans that will prove solid empirical
data. Some don't think DSI is real. It's a 'hidden handicap' that has
profound effect on kids and families. We have a dysfunction without a
diagnosis. You can't imagine the frustration."
Gouze and Smith have felt that frustration on the home front. Their book
is a solid manual of hope for countless kids with DSI and their families.
Let's hope the funding and research keep up.
(Reprinted with permission from the author, 2005)
About the author
: Polly E. Drew is a marriage and family therapist and
freelance columnist for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She may be contacted via email at:
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