By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

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. 

SPD is real

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, despite this growing body of research, much of the medical community and those involved in the diagnostic manual have not been convinced.

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 has recently dropped his only form of protein and now only eats 5 foods, but was told that it’s just a phase and there’s nothing to be concerned about.

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 but parents were assured that they’ll get over it soon.

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?

By recognizing SPD as its own diagnosis, more research can be done to learn about this condition and how best to treat it. 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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Work with me for 1:1 consultation to learn more about SPD and how it affects your child.
SPD Is real
SPD is real, with or without a diagnosis code.

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MEET THE AUTHOR

Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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