Treating Sensory Processing Disorder in Children

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sensory processing disorder
On Tuesday, August 16, 2016, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal with this title: Treating Children for Sensory Processing Disorder.  Since I have treated hundreds of these children, I am posting here some of the facts that I have learned. First of all let me provide some extracts from this article that is all about a diagnosis of “Sensory Processing Disorder” (SPD). The article says that SPD is believed to affect 5% to 16% of children in the United States.

I want to make it clear what we are talking about. This article describes a three-year-old child who, when accompanying his mother to the grocery store would have meltdowns. His mother was quoted as saying “he would literally bite me throughout the grocery store”. An occupational therapist determined that he had SPD: “a condition in which the body and brain have difficulty processing and responding to sensory stimuli in the environment”. The article goes on to say that “some people with SPD are hypersensitive to loud noises or different textured foods. Others may be agitated by the touch of a clothing tag”. The Director of Occupational Therapy (DOT) research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center was reported as saying

“occupational therapists treat dozens of SPD patients every week. It can affect just one sense, such as hearing, touch or taste, or multiple senses. Sensory processing problems can also affect the body’s vestibular system, creating difficulties with balance, or the proprioceptive system, leading to problems with clumsiness and body positioning”.

The DOT “has worked with some children with SPD who are academically gifted and don’t have autism or ADHD. It is clear from the article that the method of treatment, entitled “sensory integration”, looks upon SPD as abnormal psychological behavior. This is  in spite of the fact that a professor of radiology and bioengineering at University of California, San Francisco stated that studies showed that children with SPD had less developed white matter mostly in the back of their brain, compared with typically developing children. This posterior region of the brain is where a lot of sensory processing takes place. This is a major clue as we shall see shortly.

Beyond the Bad Parenting Theory of Sensory Processing Disorder

Now I ask you dear reader, is it common sense to claim that this kind of disorder in 5% to 16% of our children is purely psychological from bad parenting, acceptably normal in a young child, or caused by genetic changes? Since the Wall Street Journal article claims that “adults can have SPD”, it is clearly not confined to children. To believe that any of these facts, or all of them together, can result in so much willful behavioral deviation is a reduction to absurdity. It is absolutely certain that Mother Nature never makes that kind of genetically determined mistake in so many individuals.

The article in the Wall Street Journal reports that “a common treatment at Cincinnati Children’s is called sensory integration, involving three sessions a week for about six weeks”. The founder of the STAR Institute for sensory processing disorder in Denver involves an intensive treatment program of some 31-hour sessions nearly every day for several weeks. The cost is about $175 per session.

When I was a consultant pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Foundation, I saw many children who were referred because of “emotional problems”. The accepted cause at that time (and still is by many pediatricians) was lack of good parenting. In discussions with parents, I found that bad parenting was rare, but lousy diet was common, particularly because of the enormous overload of sugar, often started in infancy. In fact, sugar was used as an inducement to good behavior, not recognizing the fact that the sugar was the cause of the bad behavior in the first place. By doing a blood test on these children I repeatedly found evidence of thiamine deficiency. To me, the extension of the absurdity is that there is no mention at all in this article about the role of nutrition. I have posted a number of articles on this website concerning vitamins, particularly  vitamin B1 (thiamine). I have pointed out many times that overloading the diet with empty calories, particularly from sugar, automatically induces thiamine deficiency relative to the excessive calories. The scientific evidence for this has been known since 1936. Any attempt to depict thiamine deficiency by measuring its blood level in a person eating “empty calories” will be doomed to failure. The concentration of thiamine in the blood is only normal in relation to a normal calorie content of the diet. It is the calorie/thiamine ratio that counts.

Sugar, Thiamine and SPD

By pointing out to the parents that they had to get rid of the sugar and providing the child with a supplement of thiamine and magnesium, all the symptoms of “psychological misbehavior”, no matter what pretty name was given to it, quickly resolved. For literally a few dollars and cents, this form of treatment is overwhelmingly simple and effective. The “posterior region of the brain where a lot of sensory processing takes place” is peculiarly sensitive to thiamine deficiency. It will affect balance and in its extreme form, can affect brainstem mechanisms where the control of heart rate and breathing is automatically conducted. This is why an excess of sugar is incredibly dangerous, not because the sugar is a poison in its own right, but because of the secondary effect on energy metabolism in that part of the brain that is essential to life itself.

What seems to be poorly understood is that thiamine deficiency produces the same effect in the brain as lack of oxygen and sensory perception becomes exaggerated. Pain is felt more intensely and may give rise to a phenomenon known as “hyperalgesia”(acute pain perception). Sound and light may be so much more perceived that the sufferer puts hands over his ears or closes his eyes, because the perception is offensive. Touch is grossly exaggerated and may even give rise to screaming by the child when being physically examined by a physician. Because of this poor understanding, the behavior of the child is regarded as “psychological”. Under such circumstances a mild injury to an ankle may give rise to severe pain in the leg. It used to be known as “acute sympathetic dystrophy”. The name has been changed to “acute regional pain syndrome” or “complex regional pain syndrome“. Let it be clearly understood that no matter what kind of injury, obvious inflammatory reaction or source of discomfort occurs in the body, the pain is perceived by the brain. If the mechanism of sensory perception is exaggerated, the pain will be more intense.

Conclusion

It is becoming abundantly clear that a diagnosis of sensory integration, ADD, ADHD, OCD and many other diagnostic refinements are not separate diseases at all. Like variations on a symphonic theme in music, the biochemical changes in the brain are responsible for creating the symptomatic expressions on a completely variable basis. It also explains in practical terms why many of the so-called SPD children in the Wall Street Journal article “were unusually gifted”. Like different models of cars with different horsepower, surely the more intelligent brain requires efficient energy metabolism to meet its “gifted” requirements. For those interested in further details of this concept, turn to the post on “Eosinophilic Esophagitis” on this website. There you will find that the unfortunate patient described with this disease was misdiagnosed for many years as psychosomatic. I will go further than this and say that if the symptoms that are commonly represented by changes in brain processing are neglected, and the malnutrition continues, we can expect damaging changes to take place. I would expect this to lead to a whole series of diseases that also go by different diagnostic nomenclatures, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer disease and various forms of dementia that represent the end point damage that has accrued over years. Are we collectively insane?

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1 Comment

  1. After enduring loud motorcycle noise as I ate along a roadside cafe, then loud overhead music at my produce store, as I arrived to shop at Trader Joe’s I found myself struggling to mentally focus on my shopping. I knew then the culpret was the excessive noise over the previous hour. My SPD tolerance & health status were actually better today than most days, where just a few minutes of loud noise would do me in. As I arrived home, I thought to again Google sensory processing disorder (perhaps for the hundredth time in recent years). I’ve lived with it for 20 plus years as a result of hydrocephalus, and have undergone 12 shunt revisions. I became a neuroscientist out of these challenges 20 yrs ago, where in 2002 I conducted my own sensory study. I became involved in drum circles where I’ve developed some of my own therapeutic methods. I write some pretty interesting blogs on my work & research. Your blog caught my attention today in that you dared to call out one of the leading stories. And many of the Google images so called experts I read today were equally misinformed. Sadly SPD has become politicized in the wrong way with few effective treatments, and essentially no protections. I bet less than 1 in 10 knows what SPD is, and what accommodations are needed. Yet 9 in 10 would likely know what a transgender bathroom is. This lack of public awareness needs to be changed. Then we’ll be better prepared to address its science. Thank you for your efforts.

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