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On Call: Making Sense of Sensory Problems

Q. My child's teacher said that he may have sensory integration disorder. What is it? Should I be concerned?

A. Sensory integration disorder (also known as sensory processing disorder) is getting a lot of attention these days, but it's not an official diagnosis. The term was coined by an occupational therapist to describe children who seem to have problems processing information from their five senses. The symptoms may include being very sensitive to touch, sounds, textures, and other stimulation; being easily distracted; clumsiness; and having trouble with social situations, impulse control and transitions.

If your child has several of these symptoms (not just one), it could signal a learning disability, attention deficit disorder, or an autism spectrum disorder. The confusing thing, though, is that many kids have one or another of these characteristics! Lots of children hate itchy clothing tags or freak out at certain noises. Some kids are simply more sensitive to their environment. Others act this way due to stress-and with time, their "problems" will lessen or disappear, something I've seen in my patients. Some kids are just quirky, which, in my opinion, should be appreciated rather than treated.

So don't panic. Your child will most likely be just fine. Talk to his doctor, and get some additional input from his school. Together, you can figure out what's going on with your child and what, if anything, you need to do about it.