Can Sensory Processing Disorder be reversed

Written by Stella Chadwick for the Autism Eye Magazine.

Reticular Activating System (RAS) and limbic system

Regardless of the label your child has, amongst the broad spectrum of ASD, almost all disorders are related to the abnormal functioning of two key areas of the brain; the Reticular Activating System (RAS) and the limbic system.

RAS is responsible for wakefulness and processing of all information, both being sent and received by the brain. All of our senses (except smell, which goes to our brain’s emotional centre) are wired directly to this area. Think of RAS as a bouncer at a nightclub that works for the brain. It prevents sensory overload by making sure our brain does not have to deal with more information than it can handle.  The limbic system is the emotional centre of the brain and is responsible for the way a person behaves, the level of anxiety and aggression that is felt, as well as the mood that is experienced.

What has always fascinated me is that symptoms of sensory processing disorder fluctuate from day to day and sometimes from hour to hour. This means that the brain is responding differently at different times given the same information, suggesting that the response is not static. This is huge – because it means that children with sensory processing disorder may not have a brain disorder but a disorder in the way information is fed to the brain.

There are a number of therapies, which have been shown to help with sound sensitivity, such as Auditory Integration Therapy. However, in this article, we will be focusing on the roles of nutrition and individual biochemistry in sensory integration disorders and the practical steps that can be taken to address any imbalances.

How The Sensory System Develops

Sensory development occurs in the first 3 years of life. From birth to 3 months, infants rely mostly on touch and feel which means that the sensory system requires slow speed and hence slow myelination – a bit like the speed of old “dial-up”. Myelin is like the plastic coating of an electrical wire, providing an insulating layer and is essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system.

Between 3 and 12 months, the visual system needs a lot of support and this is where “ultra speed broadband” is required as there is significant need for myelination. Between 12 and 36 months kids start to move about a lot more so the vestibular system, responsible for balance, needs significant support. The vestibular system in particular is very sensitive to any disturbances to myelination and any environmental assault at this time can have a significant impact on development. It is therefore not surprising that many children regress during this period.

Why Do Sensory Integration Issues Occur?

Genetic predisposition may play a part but the evidence seems to suggest that the role of genetics is negligible. In many cases, the key contributing factors appear to be environmental toxins and viral load, which interrupt myelination. If these offending toxins and viruses stay in the system then the insulin-like growth factor IGF-1 is depleted (IGF-1 helps reproduce and regenerate cells).

Reduced IGF-1 appears to trigger continual re-activation of neurotropic viral agents causing fluctuating inflammation in the sensory organs or their nerves – this results in the brain not being able to integrate sensory systems and leads to a changing and confusing clinical state. Please see table 1 for a list of neurotropic viruses.

Toxins can have a significant impact on neurological function.  In their 2006 review Harvard environmental epidemiologist Philippe Grandjean and Mount Sinai Medical School paediatrician and epidemiologist Philip Landrigan identified five widely used industrial chemicals as “developmental neurotoxicants.” Such chemicals can contribute to developmental brain disorders such as autism. The five were; lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic and toluene.

In addition, the 2006 report identified more than 200 industrial chemicals that cause brain damage in adults. The authors warned that many of these might likewise cause developmental brain disorders if exposure occurred during pregnancy or early infancy. These toxins are present in the environment in many forms: as a soil component, water contaminant, as well as dust particle in urban areas.

High levels of these toxins can be found in industrial areas, near mines and factories, as well as near battery recycling centres. Mercury is a key component of amalgam fillings, regularly administered to both children and adults in the UK. In Table 2 you will find the list of the organ systems often affected by toxic exposure to substances we are faced with on a daily basis.

How Do We Reverse This?

  • Reduce the toxic load by assessing and managing exposure to toxins from the environment, diet and household products.
  • Remove toxins from the body. Support natural detoxification pathways with a clean, nutritious diet, containing adequate protein to make the enzymes necessary to clear toxins out. You can also consider using supplements like liposomal glutathione, which is a master antioxidant for the body. Using Epsom salt baths can help support sulphation – involved in a variety of biological processes, including detoxification, hormone regulation, molecular recognition, and cell signalling. Support the liver with herbs like dandelion and burdock or milk thistle. Use powerful detoxification tools such as the IonCleanse by AMD footbaths, which has excellent clinical data. You can find more information on the Brainstorm Health website.
  • Identify and remove the viral load. I cannot stress how important this step of the process is. Viral infections do not need to necessarily have been acquired post birth. There is strong evidence to suggest that both the egg and the sperm can be infected with these viruses and can get passed on from the father as well as the mother to the foetus.
  • Reduce fungal/bacterial/allergic immune hyperstimulation – these are opportunistic pathogens – identify and deal with them. Food intolerances are really important to address. Key food sensitivities are gluten, dairy, soy, eggs and corn – but there can be others.
  • Neurons need a lot of energy so address any mitochondrial issues. Mitochondria are like the batteries of our cells. There does not need to be a serious mitochondrial disease for there to be a significant need to support mitochondrial function. This may be something you will need to discuss with your healthcare professional.
  • Sleep is significant. Especially deep sleep – sleep increases olygodendrocytes which in turn increase myelin formation – this process doubles in deep sleep. Melatonin, our sleep hormone is also an important antioxidant.
  • Ensure there is adequate fat in the diet – especially DHA.
  • Exercise.
  • Socialise and learn new skills.
  • Address mineral imbalances. Heavy metals can dis-regulate minerals significantly. See table 3 for symptoms caused by mineral deficiency.
  • Ensure adequate intake of nutrients to help myelination: Lots of DHA, vitamin D3 and K2, C, B vitamins, zinc, iodine, iron, lithium, copper, phosphatidyl serine and choline.


Addressing sensory processing disorder requires a multifactorial approach.  Cleaning up the diet and reducing environmental toxic load can be significant for some but as ever, there is no one-size-fits-all in autism and a thorough investigation is necessary to help identify and deal with the toxic burden and viral load and support mitochondrial function in order to help restore function from the ground up.


Table 1






All herpes group of viruses such as:

Herpes simplex

Varicella zoster (chicken pox)

Epstein Barr



Table 2. Organ Systems Often Affected by Toxic Exposure 

[Nelson et al. 2011; Pope AM and Rall DP 1995]
Organ/ System Exposure Examples
Respiratory asbestos, radon, cigarette smoke, glues
Skin dioxin, nickel, arsenic, mercury, cement (chromium), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), glues, rubber cement
Liver carbon tetrachloride, methylene chloride, vinyl chloride
Kidney cadmium, lead, mercury, chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents
Cardiovascular lead, carbon disulfide, arsenic, cadmium, ozone, vinyl chloride, carbon monoxide, noise, tobacco smoke, physical stress, nitrates, methylene chloride
Reproductive lead, carbon disulfide, methylmercury, ethylene dibromide, polychlorinated biphenyls
Haematologic arsenic, benzene, nitrates, radiation
Neuropsychological Tetrachloroethylene (dry cleaning fluid), mercury, arsenic, toluene, lead, methanol (used to produce a variety of chemicals, including formaldehyde and acetic acid. Formaldehyde is added to adhesives used in the wood industry, such as plywood and laminates. Formaldehyde is also a key component of resins used to coat paper and plastic products. vinyl chloride (used to make PVC – polyvinyl chloride)

Table 3

Symptoms caused by a mineral imbalance of key minerals
MAGNESIUM: inability to sleep, irritability, sensitivity to noise, muscle soreness or spasms, anxiety and depression, heart palpitations, unusual tiredness, cold extremities, difficulty concentrating, food and chemical sensitivities, poor appetite, poor short-term memory, carbohydrate cravings, constipation, frequent cavities, thyroid problems
IRON: anaemia, fatigue, pale skin, shortness of breath, cold hands and feet, inflamed or sore tongue, brittle nails, poor appetite, cravings for non-food items such as ice or dirt
ZINC: poor attention span and motor disorders, skin problems such as; acne, eczema, dry, scaling skin, hair loss, poor immune system, slow wound healing, poor sense of smell and taste, fussy eating.
COPPER: fatigue, arthritis, paleness, always feeling cold, anaemia, brittle bones, frequent infections, muscle and joint pain, poor growth, hair loss, unexplained weight loss, easy bruising, skin inflammation and sores
IODINE: depression, lethargy and fatigue, memory problems, recurrent infections, cold extremities, brain fog, thinning hair, constipation, shortness of breath, impaired kidney function, muscle weakness and joint stiffness, thyroid problems