What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

What is Sensory Processing Disorder? 

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a disorder characterized by difficulties managing information that comes in through the senses. For many children with SPD, everyday occurrences can feel extremely overwhelming. For example, hearing an ambulance’s loud sirens, while simultaneously witnessing the flashing lights, can be a trigger that causes a child to feel very upset. Another example may be the texture of a certain food, resulting in increased anxiety when it comes to eating. There are a multitude of potential triggers, as we are constantly using our senses to experience the world around us.

There are two sensory processing challenges, and many children display a combination of both:

  • Hypersensitivity→Children avoid sensory input because it is too overwhelming
  • Hyposensitivity→Children seek sensory input because they look for more stimulation

Signs & Symptoms

It is important to keep in mind that one child can be hypersensitive in some situations, while hyposensitive in other situations. It depends how the child needs to self-regulate at that point in time. By observing your child and his/her signs and symptoms in a variety of situations, however, one can slowly anticipate what are his/her triggers.

For a child who may be displaying signs of hypersensitivity, the signs and symptoms may include:

  • Easily overwhelmed by people and places
  • Easily startled by loud noises
  • Easily upset wearing itchy or uncomfortable clothing
  • Avoids touch/hugging
  • Avoids trying new foods and has a very limited diet of preferred foods
  • Strong reaction to textures and smells
  • Easily upset by changes in routine and trying new things

For a child who may be displaying signs of hyposensitivity, the signs and symptoms may include:

  • Constantly touching objects
  • High tolerance for pain
  • Increased squirming and fidgeting
  • Invades others’ personal space
  • Constantly on the move
  • Clumsy and uncoordinated
  • Plays roughly with physical risks

It is worth mentioning that along with the five senses (ie., touching, hearing, smelling, seeing, tasting), there are three other senses that also pertain to sensory processing:

  • Interoception – Interoception helps you understand what is going on inside the body.
    • Children who have difficulties with interoception may have an increased threshold for pain, as well as difficulties with toilet-training
  • Proprioception – Proprioception helps you understand body awareness.
    •  Children who have difficulties with proprioception may have less awareness of where their body parts are
  • Vestibular Sense – The vestibular sense helps you control spatial orientation and movement.
    • Children who have difficulties with vestibular sense may not know where their body is in space, resulting in them feeling off balance and out of control

Oftentimes, children who have difficulties with proprioception and vestibular sense display difficulties with motor skills. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Seeming “awkward and clumsy”
  • May not know their own strength
  • Avoiding other activities that children usually find fun (e.g., going down swings, slides)
  • Being in constant motion, bumping into objects/people

The Cause of SPD

There’s no known cause of SPD; however, it often co-occurs with other conditions:

Why is it important to manage

It is important to manage and create an individualized plan specific to your child’s needs, as children with sensory processing issues can experience frequent sensory overload. We’ve all experienced sensory load, at one time or another – for example, when the television is way too loud, or you walk into a room and a smell is way too strong. It is usually easy to escape these discomforts by walking away. However, for children with SPD, the overload is not as easy to escape, and many times, everyday situations can trigger a response.

Some children have such difficulties coping with the overwhelming sensory input, that they experience meltdowns, which negatively impacts their wellbeing. A meltdown is different from a tantrum because it is out of a child’s control. To avoid meltdowns, the best thing to do is to anticipate the triggers. Once you know what triggers a sensory overload, it is a good idea to either remove him/her from the environment or change the environment. As some situations are unavoidable, it is always a good idea to prepare him/her for what’s to come.

Who can help

Luckily, occupational therapists are highly trained professionals that specialize in identifying and creating individualized plans to help children with sensory processing issues. Their goal is to help children cope and find ways to feel less overwhelmed with everyday sensory input. Many occupational therapists create a sensory diet, which is a specific plan of physical activities to help children learn to self-regulate in everyday activities.

A sensory diet may include:

  • Rolling on a therapy ball
  • Jumping Jacks
  • Using a sensory brush to brush all over body
  • Using a mini trampoline
  • Using sensory bins of different textured objects (e.g., shaving cream, beans, water, etc.)
  • And more!

If you live in Florida, please reach out to Exceptional Speech Therapy (785-717-56749 or info@exceptionalspeechtherapy.com), as our skilled occupational therapists can help determine if your child needs a treatment plan to manage sensory processing. Our occupational therapists will not only help your child feel empowered, but they will also ensure your child has fun!

Tips in the Home Setting:

  • Track child’s behaviors to determine triggers
  • Prepare child for certain environments, so he/she knows what to expect
  • Find ways to expel your child’s energy (e.g., sports, music)
  • Install and use dimmer lights
  • Use divided plates to avoid foods touching each other
  • Look for tagless, seamless clothes
  • Buy and use earplugs/earbuds
  • Follow sensory diet, if created by occupational therapist

Andrea Scola, M.S., CF-SLP
Exceptional Speech Therapy Blog Writer

Braaten, E. (2019, October 16). What Is Sensory Overload? Retrieved September 13, 2020, from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/what-is-sensory-overload

Kelly, K. (2019, October 16). How Sensory Processing Issues Can Affect Motor Skills. Retrieved September 13, 2020, from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/how-sensory-processing-issues-can-affect-motor-skills

Rosen, P. (2020, April 17). The Difference Between Sensory Processing Issues and ADHD. Retrieved September 13, 2020, from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/add-adhd/the-difference-between-sensory-processing-issues-and-adhd

Team, T. (2020, April 17). Understanding Sensory Processing Issues. Retrieved September 13, 2020, from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/understanding-sensory-processing-issues?utm_source=google

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