When is it Sensory Processing Disorder and when is it Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder?

This is the question which a lot of parents, teachers and sometime OT’s struggle with. The reason is that according to a study 40% of children who have symptoms of ADHD or SPD have symptoms of both. It may be difficult for the lay person to identify the challenges associated with the two disorders and classify it correctly.

The difficulty that we are dealing with in today’s society, is that children are expected to fit into a certain norm. If they behave outside of the norm, they are too easily placed on hard core medication which have severe side effect without a proper diagnosis being made. We cannot and should not have our children diagnosed with ADHD, based on feedback from the teacher about concentration. The aim of this article is to inform you as a parent about the possibility of your “ADHD” child actually dealing with SPD.

Here are some scenarios to consider…

Child A struggles to sit still in class, seems to always be on the go and fidgets with everything. This leads the teacher to question his ability to concentrate. He is struggling to finish his work on time and when he gets the opportunity to play he gets into trouble because he plays too rough with other kids.

Child B is a very clever little thing, but when she has to do tasks within a time frame, she is unable to. She might miss instructions due to day dreaming and sometimes starts activities before she finished listening to instructions. She seems impulsive at times and this is not only the case in class. She is agile on the jungle gyms and enjoys exploring. She loves novelty and seems overly interested in the environment.

Child C seems too calm for comfort. She is quiet and introverted. She does not play with a lot of friends and keeps to herself. She is able to do class work, but does not finish in time due to day dreaming and working slow and methodically. She seems to always have to be reminded to continue working and nothing can rush her.

Child D is forever distressed. He does not like the noise the other kids in the class are making and he gets annoyed with the kids standing to close to him in the line. He struggles to finish his work because the children around him distract him too much. He seems to struggle with focusing and blocking out unnecessary distractions. He prefers routine and same old same old.

All 4 of these kids could easily be diagnosed with ADHD/ADD and only one of them will likely be accurate.

Child A might have a high threshold for sensory input, which means that should he not receive the necessary input to get him into the optimal arousal band, he will be unable to sit still and concentrate on the task at hand. These children are sensory seekers and need to fill their sensory tanks in order to “fit in the norm”.

Child B is most likely to get the correct diagnosis seeing that she struggles to finish tasks not only at school, but at home or at extra murals as well. She seems to be impulsive during activities.

Child C might also have a high threshold, but is a low registration child. This means that she also needs a lot of input to get into the optimal arousal band, but that she does not go out to seek these stimuli. She does not seem to be on the go and does not fidget. These little children seem to be in a trance. The likelihood of her receiving a diagnosis of ADD is there.

Child D likely has a low threshold for sensory stimulation with avoidant behavior. This means that the child will actively try to move away from sensory input which is interpreted as harmful. If the option is not there, like in a line or in a classroom, these children get overstimulated and seem to be in a bad mood all the time. This will impact on their work performance as she was most likely pushed over the arousal band and into a fight or flight response.

Looking at the presentation of the children, we can understand why Sensory Processing Disorder can be diagnosed incorrectly as ADHD or ADD. It is our job as parents to do thorough investigation as to what the actual issue is and treat it accordingly.   

Happy Parenting