Living Free in a Prickly and Painful World: Treating Sensory Processing
Disorder (SPD) with Classical Homeopathy
Imagine a world in which even soft sounds like the buzz of fluorescent lights are painfully piercing. A t-shirt's nylon tag feels scratchy and irritating to the point of distraction. The feeling of mashed potatoes on your tongue induces an immediate grimace. These are the types of sensory experiences a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) struggles with each day-a world perceived as prickly and painful.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?
SPD is a neurological condition that interferes with the brain's processing of information received through the five senses of touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight. SPD may also affect the sense of balance and movement. A child with SPD is able to perceive sensory information, but the perception of the sensation is out of proportion to the actual experience. SPD may affect a child's capacity to focus in the classroom, to function in a socially appropriate manner, or to perform everyday tasks of living such as brushing his teeth or hair.
When children are able to fully integrate their sensory experience, their central nervous system accurately processes the frequency, intensity, duration, and novelty of the sensation. An integrated experience will help to create behavioral responses in proportion to the sensations, giving a child the capacity to neither over-react nor under-react.
In my experience treating autism (a neurological disorder affecting social interaction and communication skills) and Asperger Syndrome (a milder form of autism), a majority, if not all, of the children on the autism spectrum have some degree of SPD. Some high-functioning adults with autism, like Temple Grandin, consider SPD to be the greatest of their challenges.
The Tale of a Sensitive King
There is an old tale about a sensitive and clumsy king constantly stubbing his toes and bumping into objects throughout his kingdom. Desiring a solution to this problem, he calls together his top advisors. One advisor suggests that he carpet the kingdom by sewing enough scraps of leather together to cover all the land. The king is pleased with this solution until a wise old villager reminds him that if the kingdom is completely covered, nothing will grow. The animals will starve and the people will go hungry. The villager shows the king a better way to protect his feet; he cuts the leather to the right size so that the king can cover his feet with leather pieces--and this is how shoes came into being. (1)
If The Shoe Fits...
As with the tale of the king, completely adapting the external environment to a child's sensory needs is impossible. Homeopathy provides an alternative more akin to fitting the child with a good pair of shoes! The right homeopathic remedy, or simillimum, creates a situation of dynamic balance that enables a child with SPD to more easily process sensations and to adapt himself to the environment.
Because a majority of my practice involves treating autism spectrum disorder, I have had numerous opportunities to successfully treat children struggling with SPD. In my experience, homeopathy is a perfect fit for this condition. It is gentle medicine for sensitive kids. In fact, in many of my SPD cases, a sensory issue is often the first problem to resolve with the right homeopathic remedy.
Lilly, a five-year-old girl suffering from autistic spectrum disorder and SPD, first visited my office two years ago. Her mother, Ann, described her energetic daughter:
"Nothing is calm or relaxing about Lilly. She has very intense emotions. She is stubborn and controlling, and transitions from one activity to the next are difficult. Lilly is very impatient--things need to be right now!"
Ann explained how Lilly lived in a very prickly world where sound, touch, sunlight, and heat induced great discomfort. "She has lots of sensory issues. She hates the feeling of hair-brushing or teeth-brushing. She can't stand the feeling of soft touch on her skin, and she won't hold hands with the other children at her school. She is very sensitive to heat. Frequently, she will tell people to be quiet because she is sensitive to noise."
Ann said that Lilly would sometimes hit or bite her classmates. If Lilly perceives someone is about to "invade" her space, she might strike or bite pre-emptively; presumably reacting out of fear that someone might touch her. Ann gave an example of this type of over-reaction: "If Lilly is sitting at a table and you reach for an item on the table, she might just hit your arm!"
Ann described how Lilly's eyes were frequently dilated, "like when people are on drugs," she said. Very sensitive to sunlight, Lilly required sunglasses to protect her eyes.
Lilly's communication skills and use of language were unusual. "She makes up languages, makes up words, and loves to get up on a pedestal and perform," Ann told me.
Prone to terrifying dreams, Lilly would wake up screaming, "Mom, where are you?!" Sometimes, Lilly's scary dreams involved spiders or insects in her bed. Not surprisingly, she had an intense fear of insects.
Lilly suffered from chronic sinus congestion. She had one bout of sinusitis when she was two years old and developed a rash from the antibiotics her pediatrician prescribed.
Also, Lilly had a history of high fevers as an infant.
After talking with Ann, I interviewed Lilly. She entered my office, alternately hopping and walking on her tippy toes. I observed her dilated pupils and how she would occasionally flap her hands. Her movements were sudden, uncoordinated, and jerky. She stood right by my desk with little concept of spatial boundaries. Her language was nearly unintelligible and she was making up words.
Special features of Lilly's case
Lilly's great sensitivity to touch, noise, and heat played a significant role in my selection of her remedy. Her marked tendency to strike or bite when she perceived a threat or a potential invasion of her space was also significant. Lilly's intensity and predisposition to have frightful dreams seemed characteristic, as did her tendency to make up words and speak unintelligibly. On a physical level, her dilated pupils (mydriasis), chronic sinus congestion, sensitivity to sunlight, and history of high fevers also helped me to confirm her simillimum--Belladonna.
Though often considered an acute remedy, Belladonna, is also a very useful constitutional remedy, especially when there are sensory issues involved. Samuel Hahnemann describes Belladonna in his Materia Medica Pura: "the great irritability and acuteness of the senses; everything tastes and smells stronger; the sense of touch, the sight, and the hearing are more acute." (2)
The combination of Lilly's violent reactivity to a perceived violation of her space and her dilated pupils are characteristic of the "fight or flight" response of an overactive sympathetic nervous system. Interestingly, the plant Belladonna contains a chemical constituent called atropine that blocks the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby inducing a sympathetic nervous system response. In accordance with the Law of Similars, Belladonna mirrored Lilly's constitutional picture.
I also considered choosing Stramonium as a remedy for Lilly; like Belladonna, Stramonium is a plant from the Solanaceae family. Children needing homeopathically prepared Stramonium can have hyper-sensitivities to sound, touch, and pain. Stramonium is also a well-known remedy for horrifying dreams and night terrors. As fear and violence are common bedfellows, the Stramonium symptom picture may include sudden, wild rage. Like Belladonna, Stramonium contains the chemical constituent atropine, so it isn't surprising that dilated pupils are part of the Stramonium picture too. Belladonna seemed a better fit for Lilly, however, because it covered more of her constitutional picture, including her sensitivity to heat and her history of high fevers.
The Shoe Fits!
Six weeks later, during Lilly's first follow-up visit, Ann described the changes in her daughter since her first dose of Belladonna 1M. "She is really good! Quite different! She isn't biting or becoming as agitated as before. And she is less stubborn. Her sensory issues are better. She is now able to hold hands with her classmates. Also, when she told us she was having some back pain, she allowed us to massage her, which was new! Brushing her hair and teeth are going better. They are less of an issue."
Often, one of the early signs that a remedy is acting is a change in the patient's dreams. I listened with great interest as Ann described Lilly's dreams.
"She began having lots of dreams after taking the remedy. Dreams of Native Americans showing her bones and giving her teachings. She wakes up excited and not frightened by these dreams. In fact, she hasn't had any scary dreams recently."
"What hasn't changed?" I asked. "Lilly is still having trouble with transitions," Ann answered, "but overall she is much better."
Lilly's progress held for four months after the first dose of Belladonna, and then some of her symptoms slowly began to return. For example, her frightful dreams of bugs infesting her bed returned, and she would wake up screaming for her mom. Though she wasn't biting or striking when she felt overwhelmed, she would flick others with her fingers. Additionally, her sensitivity to having her hair brushed returned. Based on these symptoms, I decided to give her a second dose of Belladonna 1M, and her symptoms cleared rapidly.
Over the last two years, Lilly has needed four doses of Belladonna 1M. Her sensory issues are much better. Ann recently told me, "Before, we couldn't even take her into a grocery store because she was so sensitive...but recently we went to a carnival and she did fine with it!"
On a physical level, Lilly's chronic sinus congestion improved. When she gets a cold, her sinus congestion will temporarily return. Lilly's pupils still dilate when she's excited, but overall, she is in less of a chronic "fight or flight" state, and her eyes reflect this change.
Occupational Therapy and SPD
Lilly was seeing an occupational therapist regularly before and during her homeopathic treatment. Though in Lilly's case, she experienced the most dramatic symptom improvement after receiving Belladonna, occupational therapy is another very effective approach for SPD. Occupational therapy for SPD can be used simultaneously with homeopathy, and can help generalize and magnify homeopathy's positive results.
Homeopathy: A Gentle Salve for a Prickly World
In my experience working with children struggling with SPD, homeopathy is a gentle, effective, and safe medicine. A child's behavior, ability to remain focused in school, and general quality of life can improve when "fitted" with the right remedy.
About the author
Ian Luepker, ND, DHANP is a homeopathic and naturopathic physician licensed in the states of Washington and Oregon. Dr. Luepker practices in Ashland, Oregon and is co-author of A Drug-Free Approach to Asperger Syndrome and Autism: Homeopathic Care for Exceptional Kids. He treats patients in person, by phone, and by video-conferencing. He welcomes questions and can be reached by phone 541-482-2824 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. I am not sure as to the origin of this tale. Some have said it is a Hasidic Jewish story, others have said it is Buddhist. If anyone knows the source, please let me know. email@example.com
2. Samuel Hahnemann, Materia Medica Pura, p.254 Calcutta : Bhattacharyya & Co., 1952.
(This article is excerpted with permission from a longer article recently published in the fall, 2006 issue of Homeopathy Today. Contact www.homeopathic.org for subscription information.)