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As a teacher of music, movement and drama for preschoolers in the U.S., Carol Kranowitz always wondered about what she called the ‘out of sync’ child. The child who didn’t want to take his shoes off on Barefoot Day? Or the one who hid under the table and refused to come out and play?

So when she first heard about ‘Sensory Processing Disorder’ (SPD) from an occupational therapist, it excited her. Finally, she had an explanation for the pattern of behaviour she’d been observing for years.

And a couple of decades on, while speaking at an SPD conference in Chennai recently, she found herself making a similar connection with her audience of parents, teachers and therapists.

“It didn’t matter that I was talking about a case in the U.S. — the behaviour of a child crouching in a corner with her hands over her ears has an international resonance,” comments Kranowitz, author of the acclaimed “The Out-of-Sync Child” and other books on SPD.
A spectrum of disorders

So what is SPD? It refers to an entire spectrum of disorders in which people find it difficult to properly process and react to sensations coming from their environment, whether it’s sound, taste or touch. In some cases they over-respond — the sound of a door slamming could create an excessive ‘fight or flight’ response in them. Or they might under-respond, needing more and more sensations before they react to, for example, heat or cold.

“It often goes undetected through infancy, showing up in children by the time they get to school,” she says. “These children may not want to play with others, may not be able to read the blackboard properly or might under-perform at sports because they’re clumsy and uncoordinated.”

Understandably, this can lead to low self-esteem and under-achievement. And as children with SPD grow into adulthood, they often struggle with depression and social isolation. “These adults develop compensatory mechanisms; you don’t outgrow SPD, you grow into it,” says Kranowitz.

The disorder was first identified by pioneering occupational therapist A. Jean Ayres in the 1950s, but Kranowitz calls it an ‘age-old problem’. “Unfortunately, most children suffering from SPD are labelled difficult or wilful or uncooperative,” she says.

For kids, it can be scary and frustrating; for parents it can be bewildering. “I ask parents to put on their ‘sense goggles’ and ask themselves —‘is your child hiding under the table to get away from some sensation that’s too much for him or pulling daredevil stunts because his sensory systems are hungry for more?’”
Understanding the problem

This was precisely the message behind her recent workshop at FiVe, part of the paediatric therapy centre’s international programme on SPD, ‘Making Sense of Senses’. That was also why this teacher of 25 years wrote “The Out of Sync Child” in the first place. “When I wanted to read up on SPD, I found there was nothing written for regular people, only dense, pretty boring books for therapists!” she laughs.

She’s also since created a screening tool for occupational therapists to use, the Preschool Sensory Scan for Educators (or “Preschool SENSE”). Once a child is identified as having SPD, she advocates occupational therapy that engages the various senses to help them get in sync.