Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD) can play a major role in how people interact with the environment throughout the lifespan. From fussy baby, to anxious, middle-aged adult, to confused older adult- an individual with a sensory processing disorder may develop maladaptive strategies and poor coping mechanisms in order to deal with sensory information at different stages of life.
SPDs in children are quite common. Some kids have a hard time filtering and integrating information received through the five senses. A child might have a low tolerance for loud noises or an aversion to dirt on his hands. A little girl might not have a good awareness of her body in space, which makes her clumsy, uncoordinated, and fearful when stepping on an escalator. A child might “zone out” in a crowded environment or vomit to the sound of ripping Velcro.
Many times, these responses to sensory input are regarded as behavior problems. Some children are punished for their poor coping skills. A child who throws a temper tantrum because she doesn’t want to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July ruins all the fun. A kid who doesn’t like to wear certain types of clothing, or complains about tags and seams, is a brat. A picky eater who will not eat slimy textures or the kid who never feels food on his face simply drives his mother crazy.
With disorders like Autism and Asperger’s syndrome being part of our modern day vernacular, sensory processing issues in children are much more likely to be caught and treated these days. Occupational and physical therapists can help children develop the proper responses to sensory input. The center in the brain responsible for integrating sensory input into the proper motor and cognitive response is called the vestibular system. Therapists target the vestibular system through a variety of sensory experiences, either eliciting an enhanced response to an underdeveloped perception or a dampening an oversensitive response to a harmless stimulus.
But what about the adults in the world who never been treated for SPD? Do their behaviors today explain what must have been difficult for them as children?
Sometimes children grow out of sensory processing problems, and sometimes they develop avoidance or seeking habits that help them cope. A little girl who wasn’t easily comforted as a child, who resisted hugs and swaddling, may find it difficult to comfort her own child. A little boy who was the daredevil of the neighborhood, who constantly sought opportunities to jump, flip, or tumble from dangerous heights, might grow into a man who gets impatient in slow traffic or can’t sit still long enough to read a book.
Anxiety, the modern day buzz word associated with the influence of external factors on a person’s sense of well being, may be nothing more than a maladaptive coping mechanism for adults with longstanding sensory processing problems. Perhaps anxiety in adulthood does not result from the stress of a heavy workload, but because the crowded train commute and constant buzz of phones and voices in the workplace are overwhelming stimuli. And where children use sensory stimulating behaviors like head-banging or repetitive rocking to ease the discomfort of poor sensory processing skills, adults use remedies like alcohol or medication to make the environment more tolerable.
Let’s consider further the SPD child who developed into the anxious middle-aged adult. Consider that middle-aged adult now aging into an older adult with dementia. The sensory organs themselves are aging, and input from the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and extremities can be compromised by a plethora of age-related changes. Add to that a disease process like Alzheimer’s that causes the degeneration of brain cells in the vestibular center of the brain, and you have a person who behaves very much like the SPD child.
Take Sam for example. Sam is 78 years old and is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. Sam paces up and down the hall mumbling to himself. His pockets are full of Sweet-n-Low packets and crumpled packages of crackers. He is wearing three shirts and two sweaters. Sam touches everything and everyone, and is sometimes regarded as “inappropriate” by his caregivers. Is Sam a pervert? Or is he seeking sensory input to help him process his thoughts?
Edith is 81 years old and sits in a dark room. She also has middle stage Alzheimer’s but is mostly sedentary. She can be combative when her caregivers try to dress or bathe her. She barely eats or drinks. Is Edith depressed? Or is she withdrawing from her environment because noises, light, and touch make her feel anxious and threatened?
Currently there is no scientific relationship between SPD in children and Anxiety Disorders or Alzheimer’s in adults. However, an inability to accurately perceive the environment or produce a response that is comfortable and appropriate is common in all three disorders. Anecdotally speaking, the same approaches we use in managing SPD in children may be useful in decreasing adverse behaviors and/or poor coping skills in adults.