by Shiro Perera Torquato, Ph.D.
Is there something wrong with my child? Am I doing something wrong in my parenting? If you find yourself asking these questions and "nothing seems to work" then your child might have a sensory integration dysfunction.
Sensory integration is the process by which our senses give us information about the physical conditions of our body and the world around us. When that information is taken in and organized by our brains, we are able to use this information in daily life. When a child's brain does not developed sensory integration properly, then problems arise. This is known as a sensory integration dysfunction.
For example, a baby who does not like being held or touched, or cries when he hears loud noises, may be overwhelmed by touch or noise. As a toddler this child may exhibit "unpredictable" temper tantrums, seem hyperactive or play roughly with other children. As the child grows older and enters school, a variety of other behaviors may emerge. For example, a child who cannot sit still, slouches in her seat, or struggles with learning to write her name may have what is known as hypotonia or poor eye-hand coordination that is associated with a sensory integration dysfunction. Many of these children are mistakenly accused of being hyperactive, distractible or lazy. Some are often criticized for rushing through their work and not completing assignments neatly. At home, these children may have frequent tantrums, especially in noisy or crowded situations. The family might find themselves "walking on egg shells" to avoid these meltdowns. Oftentimes their parents find that typical parenting techniques work well with their other children, but do not work with this "high maintenance child."
When parents encounter these behavioral and learning problems they often take their son or daughter to a pediatrician or therapist who attempts to diagnose the problem and suggest medication or other interventions. Most professionals spend an hour or less with the child before making a diagnosis that is based primarily on an interview with the parents and limited observations of the child. As a result, the child could be diagnosed with ADHD/ADD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, anxiety or learning disabilities. However, the treatment is usually not very effective, because the real issue is a developmental problem, rather than a psychiatric disorder.
If this describes your son or daughter, what should you do? First observe your child and talk to his/her teacher to determine if any environmental triggers (e.g., bright lights, loud noises, being bumped by other children) may be preceding the behaviors. Also, look for patterns at home (e.g., complaints about tags in clothes, uncomfortable socks, refusal to eat certain foods, or out of control behavior in public places). If you observe these patterns contact a child psychologist who has training in developmental disabilities, and who can conduct a comprehensive evaluation of your child's cognitive, academic, behavioral and social/emotional functioning. Or, if you feel strongly that your child has some sensory integration issues, you can seek an evaluation from an occupational therapist that has training and experience in providing sensory integration therapy. If you have tried working with professionals in the past, but see little improvement in your child's behavior and/or learning, then it's time to get a second opinion. The correct diagnosis and interventions can make a significant positive impact on your child's well being and improve daily life for the entire family.
If you have further questions feel free to contact Dr. Torquato at 805-527-4146.