Sensory Overload

Victims of sensory processing disorders find the everyday unbearable.

Growing up can be difficult for children. The stresses of fitting in, homework, and even the day-to-day monotony can be a challenge. But for those with sensory processing disorders, daily life can be almost unbearable. The interactions and stimuli can force them to overreact, triggering something like a fight-or-flight response.

Julia Wilbarger, an assistant professor in the kinesiology department’s occupational therapy program, wants to find out why normal irritations drive people with this disorder to such extraordinary actions.

First recognized in the 1960s, sensory processing disorders create an increased physiological reaction to atypical textures, smells, and sounds, making sufferers respond as though they’ve been put in danger. About 5 percent of the population is affected by some form of sensory processing disorder.

“These kids can struggle in school, not because of their cognitive capacity, but because their capacity to have legible handwriting, to [keep track of] their papers, to sit still, or to really pay attention when there is other competing noise in the environment is affected,” says Wilbarger. “I’ve worked with children who are almost unable to go to school, children who can only wear one thing. They can hardly wear one pair of socks, and their poor moms drive all over the place to find them socks that don’t itch them or bother them.”

In her studies, Wilbarger attaches electrodes to patients and monitors their reactions to different types of stimuli as she looks for the line that divides typical from atypical responses.

One group she has studied is children who are adopted internationally. Her subjects included children who had been in an orphanage for a year or more, as well as children who had been exclusively in foster homes or adopted immediately.

“[Adopted] children who looked like they had less caretaking, less social interaction, less physical interaction are the children with the highest risk,” she says.

In the past year, Wilbarger has also been studying the relationship between women with fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes chronic pain due to pressure, with people who are affected by heightened sensory reactions. Her research has shown similarities between these women and people with sensory processing disorders. She hopes to use this as a model for her research.

“Because I am a clinician at heart, somewhere I want to start looking at intervention studies,” Wilbarger says. “Now that we know it exists, we know something about it, what can we do about it?”

Published in the Spring 2011 issue

Tags: Children, Health and medicine, Social sciences

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