What Is Sensory Processing?

Sensory Processing (also known as "Sensory Integration" or SI) is a term used to describe the manner in which the nervous system receives messages from the senses, and turns these messages into appropriate motor or behavioral responses. Successful completion of activities such as eating to reading to driving requires appropriate sensory processing or sensory integration.

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (also known as SPD or Sensory Integration Dysfunction) is a neurological condition in which the sensory signals from the body (vision, taste, feel, smell, vestibular and proprioception) are jumbled and the appropriate response is not performed. Someone who has Sensory Processing Disorder has difficulty processing and acting upon information provided by the senses, which can make everyday activities of daily living difficult.

Those who have SPD may find that sensory information is registered, sensed, perceived, or interpreted in a manner different than other people. Often this leads to unusual behaviors or unusual responses from someone who has SPD.

Difficulties may present as problems with planning and organization, problems with self-care, extreme sensitivity, and excessive avoidance of certain activities. As with other neurological conditions, the difficulties for someone with Sensory Processing Disorder occur along a spectrum.

Sensory Processing Disorder may affect an individual in regard to one sense in particular (only sight, only movement, only taste), or it can occur with several senses.

While SPD is most commonly diagnosed in children, there are a number of adults who have reached adulthood without seeking treatment for their symptoms.

Adults with SPD, called "sensational adults," may have problems with work, maintaining personal relationships or enjoying leisure activities. As the symptoms for an adult with SPD have been long-since untreated, these sensational adults may experience feelings of depression, social isolation, and other issues related to self-esteem.

Does My Child Have Sensory Processing Disorder?

If you find yourself asking the following questions, have your child evaluated for sensory processing disorder:

  • Why does my child not want to be touched?
  • Why does my child NEED to be touched?
  • Why does my child cry when I run the vacuum or dishwasher?
  • Why will my child only eat three foods?
  • Why can't my child write well or catch a ball?
  • Why won't my child get messy?
  • Why do I have to cut off the tags on my child's clothes?

What Causes Sensory Processing Disorder?

As is the case with many neurological conditions, the precise cause for sensory processing disorder is unknown. Preliminary research indicates that SPD may have a genetic component as well as an environmental component.

However, many parents should take comfort in knowing that they themselves are not to blame for their child having SPD.

How Is Sensory Processing Disorder Diagnosed?

SPD must be diagnosed by a qualified professional in order for a child (or adult) with Sensory Processing Disorder to begin treatments.

Screening: a screening test is given to a child with possible SPD by a doctor, a school therapist, or at a pediatric psychologists office. If, during the course of the initial screening, red flags emerge, a more comprehensive assessment is given.

Full-Assessment: If enough red flags are present after the initial evaluation, a full-assessment will be performed. This assessment involves standardized tests, clinical observations, and parental reports of the child's behavior. A speech/language pathologist, a psychologist, a primary care physician or other specialists may be utilized if there are specific areas of concern.

What Are The Subtypes of Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing disorder is a blanket term to cover three subtypes of the disorder. They are:

Type I: Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD) - a person with SMD may over-respond to sensory stimulus (Sensory Over-Responsivity), or underrespond to stimulus (Sensory Under-Responsivity) or seek out sensory stimulation (Sensory Craving). There may be an anxious or fearful pattern of behaviors, stubbornness, or self-absorbed behaviors.

Type II: Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD) - a person with SBMD may show disorganization of motor skills related to the incorrect ability of the brain to process sensory information that affects the movements of the body. It may also cause dyspraxia, a chronic neurological disorder of childhood that can affect planning of movements and coordination resulting from improper transmission from the brain to the muscles.

Type III: Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD) - a person with SDD has problems discriminating between the types of senses as well as difficulties with processing sensory information. This can lead to difficulties in processing auditory or visual input, which can lead to difficulties with school.

What Are The Emotional Impacts of Sensory Processing Disorder?

Many of the children who have sensory processing disorder have issues related to their motor skills as well as other things related to childhood acceptance and accomplishments. Most children long to fit in with others, to be "just like everyone else." Being unable to be like everyone else can lead to a great deal of emotional problems.

These issues can lead a child with sensory processing disorder to feel as though they are "alone," "without friends," and they may suffer from diminished self-esteem.

How Is Sensory Processing Disorder Treated?

While it may appear otherwise, most children who have SPD are as intelligent - or more intelligent - that others their age. Their brains are simply wired a bit differently.

Once SPD has been diagnosed, a child who has SPD may begin treatment with an Occupational Therapist (OT). While it may sound a bit scary, Occupational Therapy is fun for children.

Generally, these therapy sessions take place in a sensory-rich environment (an "OT Gym"), that includes activities such as swinging, visual, touching, spinning, and taste opportunities for a child. The Occupational Therapist will guide a child with SPD through fun activities that allow them to be challenged, but successful.

An Occupational Therapist trained to help kids who have SPD will use the following as a criteria for ongoing treatment and a goal measuring metric (as adapted by Dr. Lucy Jane Miller):

Attention: What ways can be used to enhance attention to people and things around the child?

Sensation: Can the child's response to sensory input be modified? How?

Emotion: What is the emotion the child feels; can these emotions be regulated?

Culture: Is there something about the family's culture, habit, or routines that can be changed to avoid challenging situations?

Relationship: Are there things in the child's relationship with others that's causing his or her responses?

Environment: What is not optimal in the child's environment and how can these factors be modified?

Task: What's causing the child difficulties about the task at hand; how can it be modified?

The goal for occupational therapy is to encourage appropriate responses to sensory input in a fun, meaningful manner.

This allows the child to behave in a more functional manner outside of the Occupational Therapy session, which will eventually enable children with SPD to take part in normal childhood activities, like eating, playing with friends, getting dressed, and going to school.

Parents are often very involved in the Occupational Therapy so that they can learn more about the challenges their child faces and methods to try at home to encourage more appropriate responses to sensory input.

Why Early Diagnosis of SPD Is Important:

Once a parent notices some red flags with his or her child, immediate diagnostic services should be utilized so that treatment may begin. Here's why:

  • Early diagnosis means treatment at a younger age. This leads to decreased suffering for the child and the parent.
  • Early diagnosis teaches the child valuable skills that are necessary for scholastic achievement.
  • Early diagnosis reduces the stress on a family who has a child with SPD, as well as fostering a more stable family system.
  • Early diagnosis increases the chances at successful treatment for SPD. The brain of a younger child is more adaptable to change, which increases the effectiveness of therapy.
  • Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent secondary issues pertaining to self-esteem from developing.
  • Early diagnosis gives a name to the unusual behaviors a child with SPD may exhibit. A child with SPD may be labeled as "weird" or "aggressive" by others if the disorder is not diagnosed and treated.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:


Social Isolation


Pediatric Depression

Additional Sensory Processing Disorder Resources:

SPD Foundation - a world leader in research, education, and advocacy for Sensory Processing Disorder, a neurological condition that disrupts the daily lives of many children and adults. Originally called the KID Foundation, SPDF has been providing hope and help to individuals and families living with SPD.