Some months ago we were introduced to Dr. Patti Davies and Dr. William Gavin of the Colorado State University Department of Occupational Therapy (CSU dept. OT) during a fundraiser for the SPD Foundation. Dr. Davies, Patti as we call her, gave an introduction to what she and her staff are doing at CSU in terms of SPD research at the fundraiser. I was fascinated by what they were learning about from SPD children. Patti also invited participants into her study, and would be happy to share individual results.
We are a family that believes in research, and so we signed our eldest, who has SPD, up for the study. Patti went over how the 2 session would be laid out and what would be asked of our son. Each session was to be about 2 hours long, with some EEG testing and some physical and mental agility testing. We told our son about it and while apprehensive, he was willing to check it out.
The day arrived and my son and I arrived at CSU to get started. Patti and Gavin were very welcoming, willing to take their time and explain everything to our child. They had worked with several hundred children by this time, so they had a few ways to encourage participation. When they announced that Astronauts go through a similar training, my son stepped right up and was prepared to have his brainwaves read.
The first part of the test was an EEG measuring brain activity from an auditory signal. He had a bright yellow cap with holes in it placed on his head and electrodes gently hooked to it. Over the phone, prior to the appointment, I was told that Patti would be looking for the intensity of the brain’s reaction to the sounds that would be sent to my son’s ears. Though there were many electrodes, the research is looking for a specific area of the brain for response.
As my son sat staring at a dot on the screen, they prepared the equipment to start the real testing. For my son the Wallis and Gromit show, which he enjoyed even without the sound on, was the highlight of the appointment. I was able to sit in and watch the monitors and try to conclude the results. The only bit I figured out was when the sound was registered by my son’s brain. He was given breaks and kept comfortable, they always respected him as a person and a subject, he just enjoyed the movie.
Drs. Davies and Gavin have published a report on a previous study in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy back in 2007. In this previous study Davies and Gavin wanted to find out if there was physical evidence to support the diagnosis of SPD, by means of showing difference in brain processing within a population of children. Their two groups were children with SPD and those without any known disorders.
However, if occupational therapists can demonstrate empirically that children with SPD exhibit brain processing mechanisms-unlike the brain processing observed in children without disorders-this neurophysiological evidence may then be viewed by others as additional evidence to support the diagnostic category of SPD.
Most testing and research thus far is mostly based off behavioral assumptions, starting with Dr. Jean Ayres in the 1960’s. Thanks to Ayres and those who have followed her, like Lucy Jane Miller of the SPD Foundation and STAR center, children have been correctly treated even without such physical evidence as Davies has found.
. . . behavioral expressions of dysfunction in children with SPD are related to dysfunction or malfunction in brain processing.
What Davies and Gavin were testing in this study was the ‘gating’ or measurable response to a sequence of auditory stimuli. The subjects are given a click and followed by another click and the brainwaves are measured for the difference in response to each click. Based on normal developing children there was a set baseline, or normal predictable pattern seen in these children. When SPD children were compared against normal developing children, they showed to be over responsive or under responsive to the stimuli.
Our son’s brain seemed to respond to every click with the same amount of neurological registration, meaning he is aware the first time he hears it and every time after. The predictable pattern is that the brain registers the first click, it gets attention. Each following click should register less and less. This is a pattern of processing what is important and what is not. A part of the SPD problem is that the brain is not processing the priorities correctly, both high and low. This study provides evidence of this known theory, though it can mimic other disorders.
The decreased ability of children with SPD to gate out or suppress irrelevant auditory stimuli, as shown in this study, may explain certain behavioral manifestations such as distraction, impulsiveness, abnormal activity level, disorganization, anxiety, and emotional liability, often observed in children with SPD.
Once we were able to speak with Patti about our son’s results and how he compares to children his age, we decided to go forward with more testing. We contact Able Kids Foundation, started by Joan Burleigh, who specialized in Auditory Processing Disorders. There he underwent further testing, again in a very child friendly environment, and we were able to more precisely pinpoint what part of auditory processing he has a problem with. We were given a detailed report and suggestions for the classroom. Our son also sports a lovely green ear filter to help reduce background noise. Here is part of his report:
…He will have difficulty processing auditory information in environments with minimal background noise. Subtle ambient noise and visual distractions will make it more difficult for him to attend to and concentrate on tasks. [He] will need to work harder to interpret auditory information when in a busy listening environment. If he misses one or two words in verbal instructions it will interfere with his ability to understand information in difficult auditory settings.
While Patti’s study and her findings supported what Able Kids Foundation concluded as well, we felt it was in our son’s best interest to have all of these findings presented to his school. Basically, his brain is unable to decide that the teacher’s voice was of greater listening priority than any other noise in the classroom. They tested this by putting him in a sound proof box after he was given a list of words and then repeated them. Once in the box they added some ambient noise and gave him the words again to be repeated back. The examples they gave and his responses were, “daylight”=”say lie”, “therefore”=”airport”, and “meatball” = “wheat stroll”. You can imagine the confusion if your teacher was talking about the weather and you thought she asked you to lie. In my previous post, Hearing Doesn’t Mean He Heard It, I talked about possible ways kids might try to seek out the right information in auditory challenging environments.
What most of us look for when we have a disadvantage is compassion and the willingness of others to walk beside us without judgment. What Patti Davies, William Gavin and their colleagues are doing for SPD, showing the reality and severity of this disorder, helps us present the evidence that our children really do need compassion.
Adult irrationality is often the result of childhood frustrations.
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow