Is Sensory Processing Disorder a Real Diagnosis?
Even though Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is not currently listed as a DSM diagnosis, the presentation of SPD as a stand alone disorder is very real. Keep reading to find out more.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is not a stand-alone diagnosis in the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the official manual that mental health specialists and behavioral health specialists use to diagnose mental illnesses and cognitive disabilities. SPD is currently only discussed in the context of other bigger umbrella disorders, such as Autism, ADHD, or Anxiety.
[Prefer listening? Click here to listen to my podcast episode on What is Sensory Processing Disorder?]
Is There Research on Sensory Processing Disorder?
UCSF’s Elysa Marco has several groundbreaking research studies that showcase the neurological underpinnings of SPD by showing differences in the white matter of brains of children with SPD compared to children without SPD. Unfortunately, this growing body of research has not convinced much of the medical community and those involved in the diagnostic manual.
Will my pediatrician help me get support for SPD?
Many parents come to me (usually on Instagram) so frustrated with the lack of support they get from their pediatrician, who shrugs off the concerns of SPD. Much of this stems from when the American Academy of Pediatrics (in 2012) specifically discouraged pediatricians to use the SPD diagnosis at all.
If your child “only” has sensory processing challenges, and does not check all the boxes to qualify for a diagnosis of Anxiety, Autism, or ADHD, you may be told that “it’s normal”, “it’s just a phase”, or worse – that your child is spoiled and you need to be a better parent (trust me, I’ve heard this one from many parents).
But believe me, SPD is real for a 7 year old who recently dropped his only form of protein and now only eats 5 foods. But don’t worry, “it’s just a phase and there’s nothing to be concerned about”. Cue the eye roll.
SPD is real for a 2 year old who has three 90 minute meltdowns resulting in head banging and biting, but the doctor said it’s just the “Terrible twos” and all toddlers throw tantrums.
SPD is real for a 4 year old who screams bloody murder every time water touches their face. Oh, quit complaining, parents “They’ll get over it soon”. (Yeah, right!)
These are real stories, from real families who experience the reality of “just SPD” that were turned away because their child didn’t have a “real diagnosis”.
Why does it matter that SPD isn’t in the DSM?
We can do more research to learn about how to respond to SPD, only when it is finally recognized as its own diagnosis. At the same time, official recognition provides more legitimacy to families whose loved ones are struggling with SPD, and provides them more opportunities to get funded services through insurance and even schools.
I’m not sure when the rest of the world will finally agree with us and see what we see. I hope it’s soon, because I hate thinking about so many families and children slipping through the cracks of this broken, blind system.
SPD is real.
How to get support for SPD if it’s not recognized
If you’re getting the cold shoulder from your medical professional and running into dead ends, here are some alternative routes to try:
- Ask for a referral to a Developmental Pediatrician – they specialize in these “niche” childhood behavioral challenges and can triage you to the appropriate services (e.g. play therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy)
- If you’re in the United States, you can seek out an evaluation through the school district: keep in mind if your child is only showing signs of SPD and they’re able to keep up academically in the classroom, the school may not offer services. However, they are required to accommodate you for the evaluation and assessment portion.
- If you’re in the United States and your child is under 3 years old, you can receive state funded (free) evaluation and treatment through your local regional center. Just type in “Regional center _your county___” into Google.
- Lastly, if finances are not an issue, you can self-refer to a private Occupational Therapy clinic. Many will take cash-based clients and will treat clients based on sensory needs (without a diagnosis) without referral from an MD. An Occupational Therapist cannot give you any diagnosis, but they can determine if your child would benefit from 1:1 sensory integration treatment to support their sensory needs.
- Work with me for 1:1 consultation to learn more about SPD and how it affects your child.
This was incredibly helpful.
I’m so glad to hear that. Thanks for reading!