Local kids and their families learn to cope with Sensory Processing Disorder

Julian Collen was only 2 years old when his parents began to notice something wasn’t quite right with their otherwise healthy son. The first real sign that something was wrong occurred one day at preschool when the teacher was making cookies. She turned on an electric mixer, and Julian panicked. He screamed and cried as he backed himself into a corner – terrified by the alarming noise.

It didn’t stop there. His teachers said Julian had trouble in the restroom because the flushing of automatic toilets scared him. And Julian’s parents, Josh Collen and Nicole Siegel, say he was extra sensitive to the noises at a “Touch a Truck” event, where kids can get an up-close look at police cars, firetrucks, ambulances and the like. It was supposed to be fun, but Josh Collen says it was an “absolute horror show” for the whole family.

Julian suffers from Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD, which means he doesn’t process sensations the way most people do. Movement can be misprocessed in the brain, as can the senses of sight, smell, taste, touch or hearing, all of which can be overwhelming to a person with SPD. “He would hit me or have a tantrum,” Siegel recalls. “He was trying to get away from everything. There was extreme anxiety in these situations, and then he began to anticipate places where he would be exposed to loud sounds. Things got worse.”

Doctors are not certain what causes SPD but believe a combination of environmental and biological factors may be to blame. The majority of children who suffer from autism spectrum disorders and other diagnoses have SPD, though roughly one in 20 people overall suffer from SPD at some point in their lives.

Looking for answers, Collen and Siegel took Julian to see Kimberly Bradley, an occupational therapist in Metairie who works primarily with pediatric patients and specializes in helping kids with SPD. The disorder manifests in many different ways – most symptoms begin in childhood, though Bradley says adults can suffer with SPD, too. Those with the disorder can become disorganized or confused, and they may not be able to complete simple tasks when confronted with certain sensory input.

Some people with SPD shut down when they overload. Rather than act out in fear as Julian would, these people become extremely fearful and will do anything to hide from the object or situation causing the sensation. In other words, SPD often causes a “fight or flight” reaction in almost all who struggle with it, depending on whether the senses are over- or understimulated.

Bradley says she works to find a healing path for her patients, with an end goal of building coping skills to deal with the things that make them so tragically and dangerously uncomfortable. In Julian’s case, the initial bridge was a set of noise-cancelling headphones. Now 5, he’s graduated from the headphones and simply places his hands over his ears when he encounters a sound frightening to him.

Julian functions regularly in his family role and as a pre-kindergarten student. His current demeanor is “night and day” from where he was three years ago, Josh Collen says. “Every child is different,” Bradley says. “So, the treatments change. You have to develop relationships and build trust… Like an automatic toilet. It can be loud and annoying, but it’s not going to hurt you. It can be as simple as showing a child that. Other times, it’s not that easy.”

That was the case with 11-year-old Mallory Whitaker. She has Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that hinders communication and socialization. Mallory also has SPD, which affects roughly 75 percent of those with autism, ADHD and other disorders. Like Julian, Mallory’s triggers involved sound, but she also had extreme difficulty with transitions, such as changes in environment or things being in disorder. But unlike Julian, she would hide when she suffered the terrors associated with SPD.

“She would do anything to not draw attention to herself,” says her mother, Elizabeth Whitaker. “She shut down emotionally. She’d be silent. She couldn’t function even to do her schoolwork if there was a whisper.” Because headphones would bring attention, Bradley had to work differently with Mallory, who lives in Luling. She slowly immersed her in environments that made her uncomfortable, and then she’d have her perform simple tasks, such as doing her homework.

Eventually, they made significant progress together, and Mallory functions well in her fifth-grade class. Researchers are making strides in their studies of SPD, and therapists are employing simple devices at school, and in the home and workplace, where they can be effective. People with SPD can use exercise balls and bungee cords to allow a form of vestibular movement – swinging, spinning or rolling – while working or learning.

“Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum,” Bradley says, regarding the amount and type of sensory input they can tolerate. “As functioning adults, we can do something about it. (If) we don’t like a sound, we turn the device off. If we get uncomfortable at our desk, we get up and take a walk, or maybe get a cup of coffee. Kids can’t do that in controlled environments sometimes.”

Elizabeth Whitaker says patience is key. “This is a lengthy process, but it’s worth working for,” she says. “Never give up.”

Andrew Canulette is a journalist and father of four whose work has appeared in Nola Family, The Times-Picayune, ESPN Outdoors and Bassmaster.com.


Could your child have Sensory Processing Disorder? 

A child who has Sensory Processing Disorder does not necessarily have special needs, but you should know the signs and how to help your child. 

  • Overly sensitive to loud sounds like vacuums and blenders
  • Has “selective hearing” or difficulty listening
  • Chews on everything
  • Has difficulty dressing himself
  • Hates being cuddled or tickled
  • Seems unaware of normal touch or pain and often touches others too soft or too hard
  • Complains about tags in her clothing
  • Hates having his hair washed or cut
  • Has poor fine and/or gross motor skills
  • Always smelling people, food and objects