Helping Patients with Sensory Processing Disorder Navigate an Overwhelming World

child at camp

How do you process the world? With help from your senses. Whether you realize it or not, your brain is continually sending signals that guide the way your body functions — telling you to step over a puddle, drop a hot object, or remove a rock from your shoe. In short, these communications help keep you comfortable and safe as you go about your day.

For some people, however, these signals do not function as they should, due to a condition called sensory processing disorder. These miscommunications between the brain and body can make seemingly simple tasks, like getting dressed or working in crowded rooms, a challenge.

Are you interested in helping patients with sensory processing disorder navigate an overwhelming world? If so, a career in occupational therapy might be right for you.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

When your body receives information from the world, the message is sent up into your brain, where it organizes the data and tells you how to respond. For instance, when you touch a hot pot on the stove, your sense of touch sends a message that you should let it go to avoid further harm. For most people, these messages are sent, received and acted upon without little — if any — conscious effort. However, that is not the case for every individual.

“People with sensory processing disorder have difficulty receiving and responding to information that comes in from their senses,” says Cindi Tiongco, an occupational therapist and assistant professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center’s School of Health Professions (TTUHSC SHP). “Something as simple as a light touch, for example, can make the brain send an ‘emergency’ signal.”

While problems with touch are often used as examples, sensory processing disorder can impact any of the five external senses — sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch, as well as the three lesser-known senses:

● Proprioception reception: Sometimes referred to as “body awareness,” this sense helps you know where your body parts — such as your arms and legs — are at any given moment without the need to visually see them. 

● Vestibular system: Closely connected to your sense of balance, these receptors in your inner ear helps your body understand how it's moving through space.

● Interoception: Hungry? Cold? This sense tells your brain things that it needs to respond to in order to regulate your body, such as eating more food when you need energy or putting on a sweater if you are too cold.

All people have sensory preferences — perhaps they prefer the feel of a certain material or smell of a particular flower — but for those living with sensory processing disorder, these responses become problematic to the point where they can impact their daily lives.

Though not uncommon, many people living with this condition may not even realize that they have it. Because sensory disorders can present in a variety of ways — and affect any of the senses — it can be difficult for medical professionals to officially diagnose patients. Each case is very unique. There is also a classification challenge; while the condition is officially recognized in the Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood, it has yet to be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the International Classification of Disease, which are two of the most common diagnostic tools for medical conditions.

Consequently, it is hard to determine exactly how many people are living with the condition. One 2013 study that looked at school-age children with sensory processing differences estimated that between 5% to 16% of the student population is affected.

The confused or heightened sensory messages experienced by persons with sensory processing disorders can create a variety of challenges — especially without a definitive diagnosis. For instance, crowded spaces may appear especially loud and overwhelming, or a soft shirt may feel unbearably scratchy and uncomfortable. Those with balance issues may be unable to enjoy activities such as swinging on a swing set or riding a rollercoaster.

In the classroom, these difficulties can keep students from learning effectively.

“A practical challenge I frequently see in the school-based settings is fidgeting,” Tiongco says. ”Some kids with sensory processing disorder have trouble staying still in their chair because they're either trying to get away from sensory input, or need extra sensory input to understand what's going on.”

As a result of challenges such as these, individuals with sensory processing disorder benefit from occupational therapy interventions to mitigate their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Treating Patients With Sensory Processing Disorder

Just as the symptoms of sensory processing disorder can vary from case to case, treatment plans are very individualized. Health care professionals use a variety of questionnaires and other observational assessments to figure out which sensory system is affected and how it's affecting the person in order to create a plan tailored specifically to the patient.

“Most patients will work with their provider to go through a systematic process of trying out lots of different types of sensory input,” Tiongco says. “Together, they determine what can help the system regulate and organize those things appropriately.”

Oftentimes, sensory processing disorders are diagnosed in childhood. As the average pediatrician may not be well-versed in the treatment of this condition, many patients are treated by developmental-behavioral pediatricians or occupational therapists who are familiar with sensory disorders. Neurologists and psychologists also sometimes help to develop treatment plans.

At this time, sensory processing disorder is still a relatively new diagnosis. Consequently, as the overall understanding of the condition grows, many researchers and health care professionals are working hard to develop new innovations in the treatment of these individuals.

“There are some groups in the U.S. that are spreading awareness about the types of treatment available to patients with sensory disorders,” Tiongco says. “They’re doing some really great research with these treatments, and are working on updating the assessment tools so that we can understand the condition better.”

TTUHSC faculty and students alike are also committed to encouraging improved care practices and promoting awareness. Faculty are dedicated to educating the community about the condition — they often include graduate students in these efforts.

“We just recently presented to a group of early childhood educators about some of the signs that could signify a sensory processing disorder in their students,” Tiongco says. “We also discussed some of the strategies that they might try in the classroom before requesting an occupational therapy consult or other intervention.”

Leveraging Occupational Therapy to Treat Sensory Processing Disorder

When it comes to treating patients with sensory processing disorder, occupational therapy is a powerful tool. Through targeted interventions, OT can help retrain the senses, enabling patients to live their lives more fully and participate in activities that might otherwise be unattainable.

Ultimately, Tiongco says, the goal is to help patients create new neural pathways that allow the individual to come up with a new response to those challenges — ones that enable them to continue to function appropriately when they encounter their triggers.

“We call it an adaptive response,” Tiongco says. “We try to help the person build up their repertoire of positive experiences to retrain the response.”

Occupational therapists can also help patients to create “sensory diets” — activities or accommodations that help the person feel comfortable in these stressful situations. Common examples include bouncing a ball, doing pushups, lying under a weighted blanket, or playing with a fidget toy, but the most helpful strategy will vary from person to person.

“This type of occupational therapy intervention is less about retraining, and more about helping the individual (and often caregivers) understand their sensory preferences or challenges and develop strategies to manage and accommodate for that so that they can have positive experiences in their daily lives,” Tiongco says.

Becoming an Occupational Therapist

Interested in launching a career in occupational therapy and helping patients with sensory processing disorder navigate a sometimes overwhelming world? Start with getting your academic credentials up-to-speed. The first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. Biology, psychology, or a health science can be helpful but are not necessarily required.

After completing your bachelor’s degree, you will need to enroll in a graduate program in occupational therapy that has been approved by the American Occupational Therapy Association. In an occupational therapy program, you will acquire broad experience in a variety of therapy techniques and theories. According to Tiongco, that includes approaches to treat sensory processing disorders.

To become a highly qualified occupational therapist who focuses on sensory disorders, you will need to look for opportunities to supplement your classroom learning. In many programs, you will be able to gain hands-on experience with field placement. For example, in the TTUHSC SHP Occupational Therapy program, students complete two 12-week field placements. A student interested in working with sensory processing patients could be paired with a therapist who specializes in this area.

“We definitely have students at TTUHSC who are focusing on sensory disorders for their career,” Tiongco says. “In our program, they have opportunities to do some self-directed learning. They’re also encouraged to attend conferences where they can learn more about the topic.”

After completing your occupational therapy degree, your next step would be to seek a mentor with experience in the treatment of sensory disorders. While learning from that mentor, you would simultaneously complete continuing education to continue to build your skills, Tiongco says.

Pursuing a Career Treating Sensory Processing Disorder at TTUHSC SHP

If you are ready to start a career helping patients with sensory processing disorder navigate an overwhelming world consider enrolling in SHP’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy program.

The Doctor of Occupational Therapy program is designed to provide you with a well-rounded foundation in the critical reasoning, professionalism, and practice skills you need to improve the health of individuals and communities. This is accomplished through a combination of academic instruction and hands-on learning.

In the classroom, the curriculum includes a variety of course content that covers the life span from birth to older adults, including:

●     Human Anatomy

●     Conditions in Occupational Therapy

●     Clinical Reasoning

●     Evaluation and Intervention Approaches

To refine your hands-on skills, the program provides labs, as well as opportunities for graduate students to interact with the community and put learning into action.

“Our hands-on learning environment is one of the major ways that TTUHSC’s Occupational Therapy is set apart from similar programs at other institutions,” Tiongco says. “We provide the book knowledge they need but provide opportunities to put it into practice. Just this week, we took first-year occupational therapy students to practice some of their assessment skills. The best way for them to understand how they personally need to grow is to actually get out there and try it.”

From day one, you will complete both your classroom and hands-on learning guided by an unparalleled team of educators who are passionate about teaching.

“We work together to make sure that our curriculum builds at each step to provide continuity,” Tiongco says. “Each one of us knows what our students learned last semester, even if it wasn’t in our own class.”

The results? Over the past three years, students in the occupational therapy program had an overall graduation rate of 96%.

Take the Next Step at TTUHSC

To learn more about partnering with TTUHSC SHP  — and helping patients with sensory processing disorder — contact SHP Office of Admissions and Student Affairs by email (health.professions@ttuhsc.edu) or phone (806-743-3220). sensory processing disorder

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