What Is SPD? Can ABA Be Used For SPD?

What is SPD? Can ABA be used for SPD?

Sensory processing is how the brain takes in sensation from the world. When an individual’s sensory processing is not working efficiently, this causes the brain to become disorganized, which affects one’s ability to stay in sync with what’s happening.  Although it’s difficult to find accurate numbers, estimates from the literature indicate that as many 40 – 88% of children diagnosed with other disorders also have Sensory Processing Disorder. (Adrien et al., 1993; Dahlgren & Gillberg, 1989; Kientz & Dunn, 1997; Ornitz, Guthrie, & Farley, 1977; Talay-Ongan & Wood, 2000).

Individuals affected by Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) need to adjust their internal states so that they can stay in sync and be able to appropriately respond to the multitude of activities that are taking place in the environment.

Recently, a new diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder has been getting a lot of attention from doctors, therapists and parents.  As this is a new diagnosis, it is not yet included in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and is often not recognized by the medical field and funding agencies (i.e. insurance companies). Although Occupational Therapists are best equipped to diagnose sensory-related issues, not all OTs are equipped to provide effective treatment. In fact, professionals in other disciplines such as ABA and Speech can very successfully address sensory-related issues.

What Causes SPD?

The causes of sensory processing difficulties, according to Bonnie Hanschu, creator of the “Ready Approach,” include (1) disordered brain chemicals in the limbic system (emotion center); (2) disordered brain chemicals in the brainstem (filter) and (3) lack of circuitry to get the right amount of sensation to the right part of the brain for processing.

SPD is a condition that doesn’t discriminate; individuals of any ability or disability – Autism, ADHD, Down’s Syndrome, Anxiety, etc. – can be affected by this condition. Similar to Autism, SPD presents a “spectrum” of issues and differs from individual to individual.

Signs of SPD

Common signs of SPD include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • AUDITORY: Hypersensitivity to everyday noises
  • TACTILE: Hypersensitivity to touch
  • ORAL: Hypersensitivity to foods, textures, tastes, etc.
  • VISUAL: Hypersensitivity to lights

Often, individuals who exhibit SPD symptoms engage in maladaptive behaviors that prohibit them from the enjoyment of daily life and independence.  Several behaviors observed in individuals with SPD include:

  • Maladaptive Behavior: Engaging in tantrums when startled.
  • Sensory Seeking: Difficulties sitting and paying attention. Engaging in “hyperactive” behaviors.
  • Attending: Difficulties following directions and simple commands.
  • Sensory Avoiding: Running away from situations when they feel “sensory overload” or hiding under a table when encountering loud noises.

If an individual with sensory-related issues is receiving therapy from more than one professional, the best approach is for the entire treatment team (BCBAs, SLPs, OTs, Psychologists) to collaborate to ensure that this condition is collectively addressed in all therapy settings. As SPD is often associated with behaviors resulting from over or under-reaction to stimulation such as taste, smell, sound, or touch, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) strategies can be used effectively in treating these resulting behaviors using a desensitization protocol.

Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), experts in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis typically view SPD as a target behavior that can be addressed using ABCs of ABA. By identifying the Antecedent (loud noise), that causes the resulting Behavior (tantrum) and the Consequence of that behavior (escape), they are able to shape the behavior by using simple, least restrictive ABA strategies like antecedent manipulation.

Special Learning’s online Basic Applied Behavior Analysis Training Course provides comprehensive learning on various ABA strategies that can be used to address sensory-related issues.

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No part of this article may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, contact Special Learning Inc., at: contact@special-learning.com


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Being an RBT for me was extremely fun because where were you going to find a place where you can be completely silly without having to worry what people thought about you? This was the only job that made me feel like I could make a dramatic difference while being myself.

I also liked to be surrounded by people that had the same goals of wanting to help kids and the teamwork made the job much easier and more enjoyable.

Change and progress was the ultimate goal for our kiddos. The early intervention program was seriously only a miracle because I saw changes in the kiddos that from day one, you wouldn’t even recognize who they were.

Changes from being able to utter 3-4 words where they can only make a syllable from when they started, the behavior decreases in which kiddo that used to engage in 30-40 0 self-harm to only half, learning how to wait during games, table work where they use to swipe and drop to the floor if they had to.

My favorite was when the parents would tell us what amazing progress they were making at home. I used to tear up and felt for these parents so much because it was already difficult for them and now, they can trust and rely on ABA and the therapists knowing their goal was ours.

By Emma Rogers, BA, RBT

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