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Autism Awareness: There are more than just five senses

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  April 22, 2010 06:46 AM

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Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD, is not technically an autism spectrum disorder -- making it difficult to address on an IEP -- but many children with autism also have some symptoms of SPD, which is why I'm writing about it under the "Autism Awareness" heading.

One of the things we learn early on in school is that we all have five senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight. But as Hartley Steiner, author of This is Gabriel Making Sense of School, points out on her blog, Hartley's Life with 3 Boys, there are actually seven. In addition to the five we learn about as kids (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell) there are two more -- vestibular and proprioceptive. And those are the ones that pose a particular problem for some kids who have SPD and are on the autism spectrum.

Those last two senses have to do with balance and coordination. The vestibular sense helps you establish equilibrium -- it's located in your inner ear, and if you've ever had motion sickness, you've experienced your vestibular sense at work. The proprioceptive sense, which is sometimes lumped in with kinesthetics, involves your central nervous system's ability to coordinate and communicate between parts of your body.

In a neurotypical person, signals from all seven senses are organized and translated into certain motor or behavioral responses. In kids with SPD, however, they don't. Neuroscientist Dr. Jean Ayres compared SPD to a neurological "traffic jam," with sensory singals unable to reach the parts of the brain that interpret them correctly.  According to the SPD Foundation, "A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively."

There's a tendency to dismiss kids with SPD as being clumsy or "just being difficult," especially in school, where people are still focused on those first five senses. When you have a kid with SPD or autism, as Steiner points out, "You spend equal amounts of time convincing others that your child is not OK as you do that he is OK"

But with a good occupational therapist and a regular "sensory diet," change is possible. "Parents need to remember that their sensational child?s needs will change from one day to the next and so will the tools, exercises and activities that their body's need to calm down or get going," writes Cynna T. Laird in a guest post at The author of Not Just Spirited: A Mom's Sensational Journey With Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and I'm Not Weird, I Have SPD, Laird points out that "Some children will live with SPD all of their lives while some with milder forms of SPD 'out grow' their sensitivities. But all of these children learn to ‘reconnect’ their brains to process sensory information effectively through specific treatment with a trained occupational therapist."

The successes can be stunning. My friend Heather's daughter recently learned to ride a bike, a moment of triumph for any child -- but even moreso for a kid with SPD.

Do you have a child on the spectrum, or a child with SPD, or a child with both? Please share your experiences in the comments!

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at April is Autism Awareness Month; you can read her posts about autism here.

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7 comments so far...
  1. Thanks for writing this, Lylah. As a mom of a kid with SPD, it always cheers me to see SPD getting attention. Appreciate you spreading the word!!!

    Posted by Heather @ nobody-but-yourself April 22, 10 11:46 AM
  1. GREAT!!!!! That was wonderful! SO DEAD ON! Thank you.

    Posted by Angie Mercier April 22, 10 09:07 PM
  1. This makes so much sense. I have a child with autism, and he's always been seen as "clumsy" and "uncoordinated." It's interesting to know it may be a sensory thing, not just a "well, he's clumsy" thing. Thank your for writing about this!

    Posted by Mom of 3 April 22, 10 09:16 PM
  1. Thank you for letting me share some of your story, Heather! -- LMA

    Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse Author Profile Page April 22, 10 09:18 PM
  1. Thank you for featuring topics like this. I have a son with autism. Please give example of "Sensory Diet".

    Posted by Edna April 23, 10 06:16 PM
  1. I am a pediatric occupational therapist and am so happy to see this informative piece for parents. APRIL is also O.T. month! Symbolically, together, OT and Autism can celebrate their efforts toward improving life for those on the spectrum, and/or those experiencing SPD. Againm thank-you. I will look at more of your write-ups.

    Posted by Deborah Duran-Flores April 23, 10 08:10 PM
  1. Great info and right...Brain gyms, sensory integration techniques, cranio sacral therapy, relaxation etc are all so important and for adults too. It helped calmed down the sensory systems of many I know including my family and increased processing and language.

    Ed Bielecki KIngston MA

    Posted by E Bielecki April 26, 10 01:13 PM
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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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