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Is sensory processing disorder a specific diagnosis?

Is sensory processing disorder a specific diagnosis?

The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts

By Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

Q: My son always seems to be in trouble at school. His elementary school teacher told me she thinks he has sensory processing disorder. What is that?

A: Sensory processing disorder is a term used mainly by occupational therapists to describe children who have trouble integrating different types of sensory information, such as images, sounds, tastes and smells.

Although the concept has evolved over the years, the core idea is that social, emotional and behavioral problems might reflect a child’s hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, or inability to integrate these stimuli properly. According to the theory, these difficulties lead the child to act out, fidget, have outbursts of anger and develop problem behaviors at school and home.

There’s no consensus among mental health professionals about whether sensory processing disorder is a valid diagnosis. The symptoms and behaviors are quite similar to those seen in autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder. Thus, many experts believe that this separate label is not necessary. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, does not list criteria for sensory processing disorder.

Finding the right diagnosis is always a particular challenge in children, who vary in their developmental trajectory. And the label is not important, as long as caregivers and teachers are focused on helping the child to function better and to enjoy life.

If you’ve been told your child has sensory processing disorder, it’s probably wise to seek a second opinion from a licensed clinician to make sure that he receives an accurate assessment of his problem. That way, you’re more likely to find the approach that has the best chances of working.

(Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.)

(c) 2016 PRESIDENT AND FELLOWS OF HARVARD COLLEGE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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