An Overview of Sensory Processing Disorder

Over- or under-reacting to sights, sounds, and/or textures

a child holding a cone up to his eye
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People with sensory processing disorder have difficulty managing their sensory input. They may over- or under-react to what they see, feel, and hear (visual, tactile, and aural input), sometimes to the point that they are unable to participate in typical life activities. Sensory processing disorder, or SPD, is most common in children, though it affects some adults.

Many people on the autism spectrum have some form of sensory processing disorder, as do some people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Even people with high-functioning autism (formerly called Asperger syndrome) may be unable to go to movies, sit through concerts, or otherwise take part in social activities because sounds, lights, or sensations are too overwhelming.

While sensory issues are more prevalent among people with autism, ADHD, and related developmental issues, the condition can also exist as a separate problem.

A.K.A.

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is also referred to as sensory dysfunction or sensory integration dysfunction.

Symptoms

People with sensory processing disorder react differently to the following:

  • Visual stimulus (e.g., bright lights, large crowds)
  • Sound, including sudden or sustained noises, and anything from music to whining kitchen appliances or tools
  • Touch (e.g., physical contact, clothing tags, certain fabrics like wool)
  • Physical pressure, such as hugging

Taste and smell processing may also be affected.

This can manifest in different ways:

  • Overresponsivity: High sensitivity to outside stimuli that can result in anxiety, difficulty with daily living activities, and problems adapting to situations
  • Underesponsivity: May not acknowledge stimuli; delayed or muted response
  • Sensory craving: A drive for sensory stimulation that's difficult to satisfy

Sensory reactions can be mild (an annoyance) or so debilitating that a person must leave the situation immediately. Given the limiting nature of these challenges, social development may be hindered.

Some concurrent symptoms may also occur:

  • Dyspraxia, coordination disorder that slows development of fine motor skills: In young children, it can delay milestones like walking and self-feeding. As children get older, it affects writing, drawing, and athletic ability .
  • Postural disorder: Poor perception of body position and movement that can include muscle weakness and low physical endurance
  • Sensory discrimination disorder: An inability to discern subtle differences in sensory input (visual, tactile, auditory, physical)

SPD can have a significant impact on children due to high anxiety levels, developmental challenges, and school and social complications.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing SPD has historically been problematic. While many practitioners now diagnose it as a separate condition, and clinics exist to specifically treat it, it does not appear in the official DSM-5, the diagnostic manual published by the American Psychological Association. However, sensory challenges were added to the manual as one possible symptom of autism spectrum disorder.

This addition acknowledges that the majority of people on the spectrum have some level of sensory processing disorder. It's clear that many people, particularly children, have trouble processing sensory input.

Diagnosis usually begins with parents or teachers observing symptoms. A medical professional (preferably someone with direct experience with SPD) can perform a screening, which may include a developmental history, general health and physical/psychological evaluations, speech/language testing, and first-hand observation.

Parents suspecting their children may suffer from sensory processing disorder may also be asked to fill out diagnostic screenings that can help guide clinicians.

While more invasive testing (like brain imaging) isn't used to diagnose sensory processing disorder, it is worth noting that researchers have ascertained physical evidence of SPD as its own disorder. For example:

  • One study used brain imaging to show structural differences in the posterior white matter of children with SPD that correlates with atypical sensory behavior.
  • Another study examined neural connectivity in the white matter of children with SPD and found marked differences in areas of the brain controlling sensory perception and integration.

In other words, the brains of people with SPD may be structured and wired differently.

It's important to understand that other diagnoses may intertwine with SPD, such as autism and ADHD. If a child hasn't been previously diagnosed, more extensive testing may be warranted for these other conditions.

Treatment

SPD treatment will vary since most cases are unique to the individual. The front line treatment is occupational therapy. One form, sensory integration therapy, has had positive results for SPD specifically.

The therapy may involve one or more of the following, which would be tailored to the patient's individual needs:

  • Sensory and motor treatment exercises and tools
  • Accommodations such as earplugs or noise-canceling headphones, special lighting, or white noise machines
  • Creation of a daily "sensory diet" of routines and helpful interventions such as supportive sensory strategies (quiet space, weighted blanket), physical activities (yoga, swimming), and sensory materials (music, stress balls, items for distraction)

Look for an occupational therapist who has experience treating SPD.

It's also vital to educate family members, teachers, caregivers, administrators, and policymakers about needs of the individual and how to proactively help prevent and de-escalate maladaptive behaviors. Understanding the disorder and how it affects people, particularly children, is vital to helping them live their best life with the disorder.

A Word From Verywell

Sensory processing disorder, particularly in severe cases, can be devastating for children and their parents. Early intervention is ideal, as children can respond well to therapy as they develop both physically and psychologically.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Health Service (UK). Developmental co-ordination disorder (dyspraxia). 2019.

  2. Pfeiffer BA, Koenig K, Kinnealey M, Sheppard M, Henderson L. Effectiveness of sensory integration interventions in children with autism spectrum disorders: a pilot study. Am J Occup Ther. 2011;65(1):76-85. doi:10.5014/ajot.2011.09205

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