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Medications for Sensory Processing Disorders

by
author image Maura Wolf
Maura Wolf's published online articles focus on women, children, parenting, non-traditional families, companion animals and mental health. A licensed psychotherapist since 2000, Wolf counsels individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, body image, parenting, aging and LGBTQ issues. Wolf has two Master of Arts degrees: in English, from San Francisco State University and in clinical psychology, from New College.
Medications for Sensory Processing Disorders
Girl sitting on the beach. Photo Credit Purestock/Purestock/Getty Images

Overview

Sensory processing disorder, a neurological problem that impacts learning and behavior, used to be called sensory integration disorder. These kids are described as "oversensitive, picky, clumsy, spacey, impulsive, difficult or quirky." They have problems processing common sensations and experiences many people take for granted, according to occupational therapist Lindsey Biel, M.A. and Nancy Peske, co-authors of a hands-on guide for helping children with sensory integration issues. Doctors seldom prescribe drugs to treat sensory processing disorder, but medications are used for coexisting conditions.

Stimulant Medications

Doctors prescribe stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin to some children diagnosed with both a sensory processing disorder and either ADHD or another autism spectrum disorder. These drugs can reduce impulsiveness and hyperactivity, and may help some children concentrate better and remain on task longer.

An ADDitude website article discusses research by Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of “The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Integration Dysfunction,” showing that many neurological problems and symptoms overlap, and that children may have dysfunctions in more than one area. Results of a national study at the University of Colorado show a correlation between ADHD and sensory processing disorder, with 40 percent of children displaying symptoms of both, reports Lucy Jane Miller, Ph.D., director of the Sensory Processing Treatment and Research Center at the Children’s Hospital in Denver.

Auditory processing disorders are a subset of sensory processing disorders. A study discussed in a paper by psychiatrist Ahmad Ghanizadeh, M.D. in "Psychiatry Journal," suggests that methylphenidates--stimulant medications such as Ritalin and Concerta--commonly prescribed for ADHD may help improve auditory processing in children.

Selected Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors

A serotonin imbalance can lead to problems with sensory integration and auditory processing. This imbalance occurs when serotonin doesn't carry messages to the proper portion of the brain, and is "prematurely 'swept away' for reuse in the re-uptake process before the brain has a chance to receive and make sense of the incoming messages," explains the Tennessee Autism Spectrum Kids network.

When messages aren't carried properly to the brain, some children experience sensory processing problems and do not perceive sensations the way most children do. The serotonin imbalance makes it very difficult for people to tune out unnecessary stimulation, and some doctors believe that these problems can be treated with Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors—SSRIs—that work by allowing the serotonin to do its job so the system can remain balanced.

However, even though some doctors, therapists and parents believe that SSRIs can help with processing disorders and other features of autism, “there is no strong evidence that they do,” according to researcher and author Katrina Williams, Ph.D. of the School of Women’s and Children’s Health, University of New South Wales & Sydney Children’s Hospital, Australia.

Melatonin

Individuals with sensory processing disorders and conditions on the autism spectrum may suffer from sleep difficulties, which can be caused by a deficiency in melatonin, the natural hormone that helps the body know when to sleep. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain, helps regulate sensory integration and the release of melatonin, according to the Tennessee Autism Spectrum Kids network, and one theory is that children with sensory disorders may not make enough melatonin naturally. Instead of relying on prescription drugs, some doctors recommend melatonin supplements to help the body enter a state of sleep in a more natural manner.

Melatonin is available over-the-counter in liquid and tablet form at health food, grocery and drug stores. However, even though melatonin supplements are used by many individuals as a sleep aid, people should always consult with their doctor or their child's pediatrician before using any supplements or medications.

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