What is a Sensory Processing Disorder?

As human beings, we are constantly surrounded by stimulation to our senses, whether it is our auditory system detecting a car horn, or our tactile sense telling us that our coffee is too hot to drink. Our sensory system is vital to our well-being and daily functioning in the word. So what happens if our senses aren’t working properly?

Sensory processing” is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses, according to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation based in Colorado. Integrating all of the senses we experience throughout the day helps us decide how to respond to stimuli appropriately.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that exists when our sensory signals fail to get organized into appropriate responses. This condition can make it hard to perform everyday tasks, and for a child who is still learning how to respond to the world in general, it can become a roadblock in proper development.

There are three main types of sensory conditions that contribute to SPD:

Sensory Overresponsivity/Hypersensitivity

  • Child is overly sensitive to touch and sounds
  • May feel pain from clothing rubbing against the skin
  • May be unable to tolerate normal lighting in a room
  • May dislike being touched

Sensory Underresponsivity/Hyposensitivity

  • Child does not register a normal level of stimulation
  • Child may come across as quiet and passive
  • May appear clumsy

Sensory Seeking

  • Child may seem to have an insatiable desire for sensory input
  • May be constantly moving, crashing, jumping, or bumping
  • May play music/TV too loudly
  • Often misdiagnosed with AD/HD (and improperly medicated)

While these are the main types of sensory reaction conditions, many children with SPD may demonstrate a combination of them. For instance, an underresponsive child may show sensory seeking behaviors since they may have a higher tolerance for pain and other stimulation. A child may also be hypersensitive and suddenly show opposite characteristics.

Impacts of SPD

Children with SPD are not able to appropriately process the stimuli in their everyday lives. They often have difficulty with fine motor skills, which are required to use scissors and write with a pencil, as well as gross motor skills, which are required for sports and many other playground activities. As a result, these children often experience social isolation which can affect self-esteem and overall academic performance.

Treatment of SPD

Sensory difficulties are often viewed as “behavior” problems or, in the case of a sensory-seeking child, misdiagnosed as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) and thus improperly treated with medication. Proper therapy for children with SPD is critical to ensure their immediate and future success in their school and home lives.  Occupational therapists (OTs) are qualified to use sensory integration (SI) approaches to treat children with SPD. The goal of this therapy is to foster a child’s appropriate response to sensory input, so their therapy often involves sensory-rich environments, whether using toys and games in the child’s home, or in a specially-designed “sensory gym.”

Therapy for SPD is ideally family-centered, meaning that parents are involved in the therapy process so they can foster their child’s progress even between formal sessions with the occupational therapist. Parents are then able to be better aware of their child’s needs and how they can help.

Sensory Processing Disorder is often called a “hidden” disorder, and often mislabeled and thus not treated appropriately. Keeping an eye out for the common symptoms will ensure children with SPD receive the proper diagnosis and therapy to rectify their challenges.