What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

Written by Katie Bartlow, OT 

Perhaps your child plays rough, struggles with washing their hair or wearing clothing. Maybe they are a picky eater, become upset with loud noises, struggle to focus, and have difficulties engaging with others. These may be signs of sensory processing disorder (SPD). 

Sensory processing disorder Studies show that SPD affects 5-16% of people. It presents in many ways and it affects people differently. When someone struggles with sensory processing it can have an impact on regular day-to-day tasks, making them challenging to perform or participate in.


Perhaps your pediatrician has mentioned SPD and you're here trying to learn more about it and how to help your child. 

Most simply put, sensory processing disorder is when you have difficulties processing and interpreting the sensory input you receive. 

We are all taking in, processing, and interpreting sensory input every day, all day. Hopefully, we take in the information, process it successfully, and move through our day with ease.

 In this case, our brain lets us know the important things- ‘it's cold, put on a coat,’ ‘you stepped on something pokey, look at your foot’. 

Our brain also filters out non-critical information, the stuff we don’t need to be alerted to. For example, after you put on your pants your brain doesn’t constantly tell you ‘hey you’re wearing pants!’ over and over. Or constantly tune in to the buzzing of the fluorescent lights. 

Those with sensory processing disorder don’t properly interpret the input being received. This may result in an inappropriate response or behavior to sensory input. 

Causes of SPD 

At this time there is no known cause for SPD, though SPD is commonly seen in developmental disorders and has a higher prevalence with autism, prematurity, fetal alcohol syndrome, and Down syndrome. A study done in 2006 shows that there may be a genetic component to SPD as well.

SPD is also strongly prevalent in children with ADHD. 

But SPD can also be a standalone diagnosis, meaning that you can have difficulties with sensory processing and not have any other diagnosis. 

So how do we help those who struggle processing sensory information? We perform what's called a sensory diet, and we’ll touch on that later. First, we need to understand more about sensory processing and the types of sensory input we receive. 

Types of sensory input 

We have 8 sensory systems, they all contribute to our daily functioning and engagement with the world. Some of these systems are more ‘known’ and others may be new for you. 

1. Tactile-what you feel (touch). 

2. Visual-what you see. 

3. Auditory-what you hear. 

4. Gustation-what you taste. 

5. Olfactory-what you smell. 

6. Proprioception-body awareness. This is the ability to know where you are without using your sight. If you close your eyes and touch your nose successfully that’s because of your proprioceptive system. 

7. Vestibular-where you are in space, this input comes from movement and head position. Your vestibular system lets you know if you are upright or hanging upside down. 

8. Interoception-how you ‘feel’. This is input that lets you know you are hungry, thirsty, need to use the restroom, that your heart is beating fast, that you are hot or cold, etc. 

It’s the input we receive from these 8 systems constantly during our day that our brain is receiving and interpreting. Some people may be under-responsive to input, others may be over-responsive. 

Hypersensitive and hyposensitive 

Hypersensitive means that you are more sensitive (over-responsive) to input than others. This may look like covering your ears when a vacuum is turned on because it is too loud. Or struggling with the feeling of your clothing, even to the point of not being able to wear clothes. At times we refer to people that are hypersensitive as avoiders, they want to avoid certain types of input because they are more sensitive to them.  

Hyposensitive means that you are less sensitive (under-responsive) to input than others. Meaning you may want and crave more input to feel regulated and fulfilled. This may look like constantly moving, spinning, jumping, or playing rough with others. At times we refer to people that are hyposensitive as seekers.
It is not uncommon for someone to be both hypersensitive and hyposensitive at the same time. This can change day-to-day as well. For example, someone may be hypersensitive to touch and struggle with the texture of their clothing, but be hyposensitive to proprioceptive input and seek out more rough play and heavy work where their muscles are being engaged. 

What does SPD look like? 

As mentioned above SPD can look different for everyone. Let’s look at some examples. 

Example 1-The ‘avoider’ 
You’re at a family gathering. Everyone is chatting, having a good time. You are getting ready to sit down at the table to enjoy a meal together and realize your little one is nowhere to be found. After a few minutes, you find them in a back room, lights off, cuddled with their favorite blanket. You might ask yourself why they decided to leave all the fun? Wouldn’t they rather be playing with their cousins and grandparents? 

In this case, your child may be displaying ‘avoiding’ behavior. Perhaps they became overstimulated from all the noise (auditory input), the number of activities going on (visual input), and possibly by the smells of dinner cooking (olfactory input). 

Their system is on overdrive taking in the intensity and amount of input, and they became overstimulated. In this case, your child noticed and decided to retreat. Good for them! They had the insight that they were overwhelmed (even though they might not verbalize this to you) and instead of completely losing it out in the living room they decided to give themself a break.

 They went to a room with little visual stimulus, which was quieter, and wrapped up in a blanket giving deep pressure to themselves which helps to calm the nervous and sensory systems.

 Maybe you've been in this scenario yourself. Perhaps you also become overwhelmed when a lot is happening around you so you understand. Or maybe you are on the other end and thrive off of all the action in which case you might not relate as easily to what your child is feeling in this moment. 

Example 2-The ‘seeker’ 
It’s a beautiful sunny day and you go to the park. Your child loves the park, the slides, the swings, the monkey bars, all of it! 

While at the park your child moves quickly between the different toys, jumping, falling, crashing as they go. They can spend hours on the swings, maybe even spinning endlessly on the tire swing. They don't seem to notice when they fall or bump into something. They appear to have the energy of the Energizer Bunny and go non-stop. 

Simply put this child is ‘seeking’. They appear to crave and need increased input to fulfill their system. Swinging, slides, jumping all give input into the vestibular system. Crashing, falling, monkey bars, and climbing all provide great proprioceptive input. 

In the case of the seeker, they tend to be hyposensitive to input and need more throughout the day.

Example 3-Both 
It’s dinner time and your family has sat down to enjoy a nice meal. Your child takes one look at their plate and pushes it away. You’ve made mashed potatoes and chicken. And for your sensory kid, the mashed potatoes are too lumpy and the texture of the chicken is too ‘stringy’. 

But earlier in the day you had to change their shirt because they were chewing on their collar to the point it was soaked through. They often chew on the end of their pencil or other objects.

This can be confusing, they are a picky eater but chew on everything. They seem to need more input to their mouth but struggle with certain foods.

 They are seeking the deep proprioceptive input that chewing can offer, but are avoidant (hypersensitive) to certain textures. 

This child is demonstrating both oral seeking and avoiding behaviors. 

Remember, there are many different ways that seeking and avoiding behavior can be displayed and these are just three examples. 

Other ways SPD may present 
● Clumsy 
● Poor coordination 
● Plays too rough 
● Sensitivity to light 
● Picky eater 
● Difficulties with clothing and textures 
● Struggles with haircuts 
● Too loud or noisy 
● Covers ears with loud noises 
● Does not seem to notice the temperature 
● Difficulties with changes in routine 

This list can go on and on! Remember there are 8 different systems that we receive input from resulting in many different ways that sensory input can affect someone. 

Treatment for SPD 

As mentioned above one of the ways to treat SPD is by performing a sensory diet. Sensory diets are specially tailored activities to help an individual learn to process sensory input more effectively and improve regulation. 

Sensory Sid Activity Cards are a great way to implement a sensory diet at home. The cards are color-coded in 4 sensory categories giving activity suggestions to help improve overall sensory processing and regulation. 

Read more in-depth about sensory diets here

Occupational therapists (OT) are highly involved in treating children with SPD. Look for an OT in your area that specializes in sensory processing disorder and reach out to your pediatrician to get a referral. 

The OT will complete an evaluation and set a plan unique for your child. They will engage your child in a sensory diet, help you with strategies and provide you with education to improve their participation in daily activities. 

Be involved! Consistency is key to working with and improving SPD. Ask questions, continue to seek out information, and work with your child's OT to learn how to best help them.








DISCLAIMER: I am not an Occupational Therapist. I am an adult who has Sensory Processing Disorder, a sensory parent and a Grandma. The information on this website is not medical advice and does not replace the information that your child's therapists gives you. These are just ideas and information that I have learned myself over the years of being a parent and an adult living with SPD. If you are concerned for your child, please always seek medical attention through a family doctor, pediatrician or therapist. This website is for suggestions and informational purposes only. Each child is different and what works for one child may not for another because all children have different needs. Please always consult with a professional.

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