Sensory Processing Adults: The Forgotten Ones

by Lisa Graubart, LCSWR
(Cambria Heights, NY, USA)

Sensory Processing Adults: The Forgotten Ones
By Lisa Graubart, LCSW-R

Imagine bumping into walls, having difficulty negotiating space, being uncoordinated when trying to do two things at the same time e.g., drumming. Certain sounds always having been unbearable to hear for years. Years later, you misperceive and misjudge directions while driving. What if you still have ineligible handwriting and others continue to criticize you no matter how old you get. What’s worse is that you could live your whole life suffering with your damaged sensory system and never having it identified and helped accordingly.

Definite causes to SPD are still unknown, but numerous parties have speculated the following. Illicit drugs and prescribed medications are possible contributing factors to the development of SPD. According to research in Pediatrics (2019), opioid exposure in utero were found to cause neurodevelopmental effects on infants’ motor, speech, cognitive development, and sensory regulation. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (1998) found that fetuses exposed to cocaine in utero can cause issues with emotional regulation, speech development and motor processing. More research is needed to reinforce this point.

Nature vs Nurture argument occurs with SPD, too. Environmental factors like contamination from environmental carcinogens, e.g., fertilizer, nuclear radioactive material, toxic metals add fuel to the fire where developing SPD is concerned. According to Beyond Pesticides, pesticides for mosquitos can cause lower motor functioning, decrease attention, short-term and long-term memory throughout one’s life. National Institute of Health (November 2014) found that toxic metals like lead have cause developmental issues, e.g., autism. Mercury impacts on vison and hearing, and memory. Neurodevelopmental delays and neurobehavioral problems arise from arsenic, lead, and cadmium metal toxicity according to Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology (Swaran J.S. Flora, ... Geetu Saxena, 2011.)

The good news since past 2000, health professionals like occupational therapists (OTs) have been researching and developing protocols to treat children with sensory processing disorder. Various and few organizations have developed programs using a team of health professionals e.g., OTs, PTs, Speech and Language therapists (SLTs), neurologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, audiologists, and ophthalmologists/optometrists to intervene by assisting children to improve their respective sensory systems and cognitive deficits-memory, attention, mood regulation in ways that synch the children internally as their sensory processing systems become integrated, so they grow into well-adjusted adults. Unfortunately, this has not been the case for adult sensory processing survivors.

According to the AMA and APA, Sensory Processing Disorder is not recognized as a complete, multidimensional disorder. All the symptoms of SPD that can affect some or all of one’s senses are only evaluated as individual symptoms and diagnosed as individual issues. In the ICD 10, these symptoms are listed as Motor Tic Disorder, Receptive Language Delay, Ataxia, Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD), binocular vison disorder, vestibular function disorder, dysphagia, etc.

While the DSM 5 separates the symptoms into Motor Disorder, Language Disorder, Speech Sound Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, etc. All insurance providers continue to only cover sensory processing issues if it does not have a developmental origin as United Healthcare, Aetna, etc. say in their policies. With this disconnect to proper evaluation and treatment for adults, they are left having to seek providers individually for this multifaceted problem. In order to confirm auditory processing problems, a suspected SPD adult would benefit from going to an audiologist that will do comprehensive hearing exam for CAPD and balance issues like FSU Audiology Clinic in Florida. ENTs like NYU Medical Center, etc. can help check for CAPD as well plus the vestibular system by giving Videonystagmography (VNG) and Electronystagmography (ENG) tests that check for problems with the inner ear that may affect balance by observing one’s abnormal eye movements.

Other tests given are Rotary Chair that checks eye movements in relation to how one moves their head; Dynamic Visual Acuity (DVA) that measures vestibular functioning in relation to one’s basic activities of daily living; Computerized Dynamic Posturography (CDP) measures how well one’s vision, sensory, and vestibular systems works in relation to his/her balance, Subjective Visual Vertical assesses one’s sense of gravity, and Vestibular Evoked

Myogenic Potential (VEMP) test assesses vestibular functioning of the inner ear organs.

If an SPD adult wants to check for visual processing disruptions, it’s best to see an ophthalmologist who can cover services with your insurance like comprehensive vision exam, depth perception test, assess for congenital issues and neuro-ocular damage. Neurologists can assess for balance, cognitive, proprioceptive, and sensory-motor reflex issues. Neuropsychologists can give a comprehensive assessment for SPD. Once adult SPD patients finish getting assessed by any of the above medical doctors and SPD is proven, they will most like refer to the rehab specialists (OT, PT, and SLT) to address any unresolved speech/language, balance, bilateral integration, tactile, central auditory, ocular, gustation, proprioceptive, and motor planning issues where the individual may still be under-responsive, over-responsive, or have difficulty modulating to one type of above mentioned stimuli or combination of the above.

As an outpatient, a SPD adult can have private physical and speech/language services that are covered by his/her respective insurance. However, private occupational therapy services are usually given on a cash/out of pocket basis only. If you luck out finding an outpatient OT provider that takes insurance, please note that any issue will not be covered if it has a developmental cause. Your diagnosis must be of a clinical, medical based origin.

Mental health therapists can assess and treat for anxiety that’s part of the sensory processing dynamic according to the Star Institute. They can also help adults with SPD cope with mood dysregulation, anxiety, speech/language disruptions, visual, sound, taste, tactile sensitivities, and some autistic symptoms with behavioral and cognitive-behavioral techniques, relaxation/meditation techniques, etc. Somatic experiential approach is a neurobiological, bio-oriented method developed by Dr. Peter Levine. Gestalt techniques that help with anxiety reduction, trauma recovery, and improving self-regulation. Somatic developmental techniques which incorporate phenomenological and movement-oriented approach to psychotherapy within a contemporary gestalt therapy framework can be utilized to help ground yourself and connect your body to your mind especially. This aids in proprioception, balance, and self-regulation. You can access therapist resources via Ergos Institute of Somatic Education and Somatic Experiencing International, NY Institute for Gestalt Therapy, and The Center for Somatic Therapy founded by Dr. Ruella Frank.

As for additional methods to treat sensory processing disorder adults, there are a few vehicles that can be accessed. One is therapeutic listening programs. There are four main players who provide this modality. They are Vital Links, Unyte-Integrative Learning Systems (ILS), Advanced Brain Technologies, and The Forbrain. The main premise behind these programs is that music was reengineered by altering the high and low frequencies in various remade songs and some original music depending on the company involved, by use of low pass, high pass, and bandwidth filters. Their respective music was produced at different decibel levels and Hertz-the cycle of a sound wave that is listened to with their special bone conduction headphones. All above therapeutic listening programs offer help for sensory issues in their own ways.

Other methods can be used to decrease the anxiety related to the sensory processing issues. You can explore different types of meditation, e.g., Transcendental Meditation ™, Taoist meditation, yoga, mindfulness, Native American, etc. with and without music and sounds-nature, etc. Tai chi is good since it helps improve balance and bi-lateral integration as well.

It’s important to note that while exploring above options to help treat your sensory processing symptoms during your adulthood, please be wary of treatment methods that claim you’ll be healed from your years of sensory suffering. These programs can end up having you run chasing these “experts” and taking you to the cleaners financially and emotionally as various people lost thousands of dollars.

Check the research done on these promising treatments with others who know how to interpret these research claims, e.g., researchers, professors in the respective fields of expertise like psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational speech/language and physical therapists, neuroscientists, etc.

So now you can start you journey to recovery and finally learn to manage these lifelong sensory processing issues and live more happily.

Good luck on your sensory journey!


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