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Parent to Parent


Possible biological basis for sensory disorder

By Betsy Flagler
John Rosemond
Betsy Flagler, who lives in Davidson, writes the nationally syndicated Parent to Parent column.

Ten years ago, I received this letter: “My granddaughter, 12, can’t stand any little repetitious thing like crunching on Cheerios or tapping fingers. It must drive her crazy inside. She is fussing at her siblings all the time to stop. This has gone on for years.”

Bratty sister? No. More likely, a child like so many today who start the morning feeling like they are under assault – by the sound of crunchy cereal or the feel of a skirt seam.

These kids do not set out to be overly sensitive to sounds, flickering lights or a bump in a school line. Rather, their brains work against them because of a problem called sensory processing disorder (SPD): difficulty taking in and processing some stimuli. A birthday party is too loud. A pool party is too wet. A bumpy bus ride is torture.

“For some people, the most benign sounds have the same effect as nails on a chalkboard,” said Carol Stock Kranowitz. She published her groundbreaking book “The Out-of-Sync Child” (Perigee) in 2002.

Your child may be bright as a silver dollar, but if she cannot deal with the new eyeglasses on her face, goes ballistic when a friend at lunch slurps through a straw, or cannot sit next to someone on the bus because their sleeves are touching, she is going to have a miserable school day. Forget about homework.

This year, more than one child in every classroom will have sensory-related issues, and new research suggests a brain-based link to the behavior.

In a groundbreaking new study from the University of California-San Francisco, researchers including Pratik Mukherjee, M.D. have found that children affected with SPD have quantifiable differences in brain structure. For the first time, this shows a biological basis for the condition that sets it apart from other neurodevelopmental disorders.

“Until now, SPD hasn’t had a known biological underpinning,” said Mukherjee, the study’s senior author. “Our findings point the way to establishing a biological basis for the disease that can be easily measured and used as a diagnostic tool.”

But despite the new research, is SPD even a valid diagnosis? It’s up for debate. The American Psychiatric Association says no.

Researchers at the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation have been studying SPD for more than 30 years with a multi-disciplinary team of experts. Despite their wide awareness campaign – waged partly to enable SPD treatments to be covered by insurance – the disorder was not added as a new diagnosis in the latest edition of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Whether or not the diagnosis is official, for families dealing with sensory disorders, the daily struggles are all too real. But there are ways to help these kids through the school day.

All students, no matter their sensory issues, benefit when they have chances to move around during the day and do “heavy work,” said Diana A. Henry, an occupational therapist. Work that lets kids use their muscles is calming and helps them focus, she explains.

In class, have your students carry or move bins, push or pull cartons of books, help stack chairs on tables, and clean the chalkboards and desks. Try activities at break times where a child stretches or bears weight on the hands, such as the crab walk or wheelbarrow walk, Henry suggests.

At home, find outdoor “heavy work” for all seasons: digging holes for plants, raking leaves, shoveling snow, washing the car or pushing a wheelbarrow. After a shopping trip, set your grocery bags inside the door and have your child push them into the kitchen.

Henry travels the country in an RV called “Ateachabout,” presenting workshops on sensory processing. For more tips, see her website at

Betsy Flagler is a mother and preschool teacher. Email her at

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