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Lucy Jane Miller, Ph.D., OTR
Lucy Jane Miller, PhD, OTR

Lucy Jane Miller, PhD, OTR
Founder and Executive Director

Q. "What is the difference between Bipolar Disorder and SPD? My child’s therapists and doctors have thrown out both possibilities?"

The symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and the moods seen in Bipolar Disorder can sometimes be mistaken for one another, but they are quite different.

The main feature of Bipolar Disorder is the presence of alternating periods of manic and depressed episodes. The moods are predictably cyclic and have to do more with body chemistry than life events. Mood episodes are intense with strong feelings and extreme changes in behavior and energy levels. Bipolar disorder is essentially a mood disorder, not a sensory disorder. Sensory symptoms are not a part of the description of Bipolar Disorder, although some people have both a Bipolar Disorder and SPD.

Sensory symptoms are responses to sensory stimuli. The responses can also be intense; thus, SPD responses can be mistaken as moods. In SPD the behaviors can be traced back to a sensory event. For example, a person with Sensory Over-Responsivity (child, adolescent or adult) who withdraws from a sensory stimulus is not depressed. They may, however, be fearful of a sensation and attempt to get away. Their "withdrawn" behavior will likely not be present in the absence of the problematic sensory sensation. Similarly, a child that responds to a sensory event by being over-active and craving additional stimulation is not experiencing mania. They are over-aroused and will be able to calm down, eventually, once the sensory need is met. (Sensory craving needs are met by providing intense sensory stimulation interrupted with functional movement, not by "filling up" the sensory need with sensory stimuli such as spinning or tactile stimulation for long durations.)

In contrast, depressive or manic episodes of those with Bipolar Disorder tend to continue experiencing extreme moods, regardless of external changes in the environment including altered sensory stimulation.

Some children with bipolar disorder do have sensory issues, however it is rare for children with a primary diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder to have mood issues that are severe enough to be categorized as Bipolar Disorder.

Please remember, however, problem behaviors can be seen in all sorts of children, even typically developing children. Thus, children who do NOT suffer from either SPD or Bipolar Disorder can be moody at times. And, developmentally age-appropriate moodiness should not be misconstrued as a disorder!

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