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Survey: Sensory issues commonly mistaken for ADHD

February 22, 2011
by News release
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Chicago — A new survey from Pathways Awareness, a national not-for-profit public foundation, of more than 500 pediatric occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech-language pathologists reports that 68 percent evaluated or treated children between 3 and 8 years old who had been previously misidentified with learning disabilities or behavioral issues.

Of that two-thirds, an overwhelming majority (90 percent) reported they had seen children with deficits processing and integrating sensory information who had been misidentified as having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Members of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the Pediatric Section of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and the Neuro-Developmental Treatment Association (NDTA) participated in the survey.

"Knowing that sensory processing and integration deficits may be expressed in ways similar to ADHD, it is understandable that mistakes can occur," said Angelica Barraza, OTR/L, an advisor to Pathways Awareness and an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration. "It's critical for parents, teachers and health professionals to consider sensory processing and integration deficits before labeling a child with behavioral issues."

In the survey, sensory difficulties emerged the top issue therapists saw increasing, with 82 percent of survey respondents reporting a rise in treating children with sensory difficulties. Sensory processing and integration issues, sometimes referred to as dysfunction of sensory integration (DSI) or sensory processing disorder (SPD), become a concern when the inability to discriminate, organize, and interpret the myriad of sensory input hinders participation in everyday activities.

In school-age children, sensory processing and integration issues can translate into having delays with coordination, balance, focus, organization, and fine motor skills. At times, children displaying deficits in these areas may look like they have behavioral issues. Although not as well known as ADD or ADHD, sensory issues affect millions of children: a recent study estimates one in 20 children have sensory difficulties.

The survey was conducted by Pathways Awareness, a national not-for-profit that educates parents and medical professionals about the benefits of early intervention for children with delays in sensory, communication, and motor development.

Conducted between May 2009 and November 2010 with assistance from the Neuro-Developmental Treatment Association (NDTA) and the Pediatric Section of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), more than 500 occupational, speech and physical therapists who regularly work with pediatric clients and average more than 17 years of experience participated in the survey.

Members of the American Occupational Association (AOTA) and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) also participated in the survey.


(1) Ben Sasson, A., Briggs-Gowan, M.J., Carter, A.S. (2009). Sensory over-responsivity in elementary school: prevalence and social-emotional correlates. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 37, 705-716

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