Although Sensory Processing Disorder can definitely be a debilitating condition, it is not necessarily a formal disability. Currently, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not cover Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). However, for some people, SPD creates learning issues, which makes them eligible for special services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
For example, kids with sensory processing disorder may have trouble understanding language and social cues. They may also find it hard to focus in school or participate in group activities. On the other hand, some people have milder or more discrete symptoms.
Keep reading to learn more on the question: Is sensory processing disorder a disability? Learn what factors do and do not rise to a level of disability, and options available to parents regardless of whether a technical disability status applies.
Navigating SPD: The Basics
For many parents, it can be challenging to navigate Sensory Processing Disorder and what it means for their child. There are several subtypes, and no two children present the same way.
SPD is a neurological dysfunction that impacts the processing of sensory information and the modulation of multiple sensory systems. Sensory Processing Disorder is becoming more well-known in the mental health and education communities and is recognized more frequently in children and adolescents than ever before.
Sensory Processing Disorders are a group of disorder subtypes that include 1) Sensory modulation, 2) Sensory discrimination, and 3) Sensory-motor difficulties.
Disability Status: When Is Sensory Processing Disorder a Disability?
At this time, Sensory Processing Disorder is not defined as a disability in the widely adopted DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders: Fifth Edition). However, mental health professionals are advocating for this to change.
The absence of SPD in the DSM-V limits the ability to grant special education and related services to children based on the diagnostic criteria. This is partially due to the absence of rigorous literature for diagnosing SPD and how vast the continuum of the disorder is, making it challenging to create controlled studies. SPD’s frequent occurrence alongside other disorders makes it hard to isolate and study.
In addition, some professionals argue that SPD is often the result of another disability, commonly autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, or other developmental disabilities. These disabilities are recognized by the DSM-V and will help qualify a child for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Children with another diagnosis and SPD can use the qualifying diagnosis to for IEP eligibility.
Section 504: The Alternative to an IEP
A Section 504 plan may be appropriate for children who do not qualify for an IEP. The requirements for a 504 program are not as limited as those needed for IEP eligibility which requires one of 13 eligible diagnoses.
Section 504 is part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) rather than the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Section 504 defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, who has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment” (34 CFR 104.3(j)(2)(i)).
Sensory Processing Disorder can qualify a child for a 504 plan as long as it impacts their ability to participate in the general education classroom.
A 504 plan is less rigorous than an IEP but can still provide necessary accommodations to help your child succeed in school.
SPD: Different Types and Impact on Learning
The impact of Sensory Processing Disorder will vary greatly depending on a child’s age, environment, supports, co-occurring diagnoses, and compensatory strategies. The specific type of SPD will also impact how a child learns and processes information about the world.
Challenges with sensory modulation
A child with difficulties modulating sensory information will experience sensory input differently than their peers. Children can be overresponsive, underresponsive, seeking, or have a varied profile across the different senses.
Children can be overresponsive to one or more senses. For these children, the noisy and visually-stimulating classroom environment can be overwhelming. They may refuse to participate in tactile activities like finger-painting, arts and crafts, or dress-up.
Children who are overresponsive to movement may be uncertain about swinging or sliding or even navigating down the stairs. In a busy learning environment, these children may withdraw, refuse participation or lash out, limiting their ability to participate in their lessons.
- Children who are underresponsive to sensory input will not notice when they need to wipe their face, may not hear verbal directions, have high pain tolerance, and can spin for some time without getting dizzy. This often impacts a child’s ability to make appropriate transitions, attend to the teacher, and engage in safe play at recess.
- Sensory seekers tend to engage in repetitive tasks that engage their sensory system. A child who seeks visual input enjoys watching items spin, while a child who seeks auditory input will flush the toilet repeatedly. Children who are frequently on the move, jumping, crashing, pushing, and carrying, sometimes do it to seek proprioceptive input. It can be challenging for sensory seekers to fit in with the structure and expectations of the general education classroom without being disruptive.
Sensory-based motor difficulties
Since the way we interact with the world depends on the sensory input we receive, impaired sensory integration can also impact motor functioning. The following disorders affect a child’s participation in physical education and recess.
- Postural control largely depends on the proprioceptive, vestibular (movement sense), and visual senses. A child with poor postural control may rest their head on their desk, lean on furniture or peers to support themselves, and fail to catch themselves when they fall. In addition to physical education and recess, it impacts a child’s ability to complete work at their desk or engage at circle time.
- Dyspraxia involves integrating the senses to plan and execute motor tasks. Challenges with praxis are reflected in the classroom when a child engages with novel learning tools, sings songs with coordinated motions at circle time, and copies the movement of others. This lack of skills can lead to a child playing independently rather than in a group of peers.
Sensory discrimination disorder
Sensory discrimination is the third subtype of SPD that can impact one or more senses, including vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, proprioception, and vestibular senses. In the classroom, this can lead to difficulties finding and managing materials, withdrawal from fine motor activities, trouble to discern who is speaking and what they are saying, or problems identifying similar letters such as ‘b’ and ‘d.’
Autism Spectrum vs. SPD
While there are many similarities in the presentation of autism spectrum disorders and SPD, an SPD diagnosis does not indicate autism. However, SPD can (and frequently does) co-occur with autism. Professionals can help parents provide the correct diagnosis.
For children with SPD and ASD, the treatment can be complementary and overlap as the intervention will focus on the whole child and their functioning.
Accommodations for Sensory Processing Disorder
The following accommodations may be appropriate for your child’s IEP or 504 plan. It is important to remember that accommodations are made based on functioning in the classroom rather than the overall diagnosis. An evaluation and review of the classroom performance will give the team more information about your child’s needs.
Common accommodations for SPD include:
- Provide instructions by using more than one sense (ex. verbal instructions and a written or visual schedule)
- Reduction of visual clutter in the classroom (removal of busy learning posters and moving materials into a cupboard)
- Dimming classroom lights
- Establishing a routine
- Pre-teaching about classroom changes (fire drills, assemblies, abbreviated days)
- Preferential seating (near the teacher, away from the noisy hallway)
- Access to noise-canceling headphones or a quiet space
- Heavy work movement breaks
- Providing seating is appropriate in size and support
- Flexible seating options (this could include equipment or simply the ability to stand up while working)
- Allow access to chewing gum
Parenting a Child with SPD
It is highly recommended to gain an understanding of your child’s needs by considering your own sensory preferences and experiences. Do you drink coffee in the morning to wake up? Have you ever experienced a fear of heights? Do you have a taste for spicy or bland food? Are you distracted when you work in a messy room?
Adults have sensory needs and preferences too. However, adults often use compensatory strategies automatically, whether making a coffee, avoiding a visit to the top of a tall building, pilling spice onto food, tidying a room, or relocating to work somewhere else.
Your child does not yet have these compensatory strategies. Reflect on your needs to better understand your child’s experience and parent from an empathetic perspective.
When you can understand and accept the sensory processing differences your child experiences as a parent, you can better structure their activities and environments to support them. It can be enormously helpful for parents to know that the trigger can be based on the sensory environment, rather than simply behavioral and empowering to know that you can help.
Collaborate With Your School
Another excellent parenting strategy is to collaborate with the team at school. When the school team finds a superb strategy that works, try it at home. And if you find a method that works at home, share it! The consistency will support your child, their teachers, and yourself.
Know that SPD can be challenging to navigate due to the variety of ways it can present. By seeking out information, you are already on an excellent path.