Sensory Processing Disorder: What To Know, By a Child Psychiatrist

sensory processing disorder SPD

Navigating the World with Sensory Processing Disorder: Understanding, Coping, and Thriving

Brief Overview of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), previously called sensory integration dysfunction, is a neurological condition that affects approximately 5-16.5% of people. SPD affects how a person perceives and responds to sensory input from their environment, such as touch, sound, smell, light, and taste. 

In a neurotypical person (someone without SPD), the brain can process and integrate sensory information from all of the senses without any major glitches. However, in someone with SPD this sensory input is disrupted, leading to difficulties both interpreting and responding to it. This disruption can lead to challenges like difficulty regulating emotions, disturbances in behavior, and non-typical responses to everyday sensory experiences.

What are Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder

SPD can display itself in various ways, with some people experiencing hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) to certain things and/or hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to certain things such as touch, sound, taste, smell, and sight. These sensory challenges can impact many aspects of a person’s daily life. As you could imagine, if your senses are being overwhelmed by something, it would be difficult to behave or feel well, making things like social interactions, school or work performance, and emotional regulation a challenge.

Diagnosing a person with SPD can be complex, as SPD can also overlaps with other conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety disorders. Identifying SPD as early as possible can help with managing symptoms and improving quality of life.

The symptoms of sensory processing disorder can include:

  • Sensory Sensitivities: This can appear as either hypersensitivity (the body being overly responsive) or hyposensitivity (the body being less responsive) to the senses. 
  • Sensory Avoidance Behaviors: When a person has hypersensitivity, their body has a much stronger than normal response to sensory input. This could include one or more sensitivities such as an aversion to certain textures, smells, tastes or sounds. The person will avoid or be bothered by these things that might not bother those around them, such as certain clothing or foods. 
  • Sensory Seeking Behaviors: When a person has hyposensitivity, their body needs more than the normal sensory input to create a response. This can lead to them desiring and looking for sensory-seeking behaviors or activities like chewing things, excessive touching, intentionally bumping into people or things, spinning, jumping, swinging, or watching screens or lights. 
  • Motor Coordination: People with SPD might have difficulty with their balance, coordination, posture, or fine motor skills like handwriting or tying shoes. 
  • Social Challenges: Due to their sensory avoidance or seeking behaviors, as well as difficulty reading social cues or maintaining personal space boundaries, people with SPD may have challenges socializing. This is a particularly painful aspect of SPD, as they may feel socially isolated or ostracized by others. 
  • Emotional Challenges: As mentioned above, there are emotional challenges that stem from SPD. Because their senses are so overloaded, people with SPD can have emotional difficulties like anxiety, irritability (bad moods), or meltdowns (temper tantrums). 
  • Behavioral Issues: People with SPD can have several issues with behavior, especially within restrictive environments like school or work. Transitions, such as stopping one activity to move onto another, can be incredibly difficult for someone with SPD. Also, people with SPD can have issues with hyperactivity, impulsivity (doing or saying things without thinking of the consequences first), and have a hard time paying attention. Attention is especially a challenge in settings where there is a lot of sensory input coming in like noise or lights/screens. 
  • Sleep Issues: People with SPD can find it difficult to fall or stay asleep at night. They might feel restless, uncomfortable, or wake up frequently in the night. 
  • Learning or School Challenges: In school, a person with SPD may struggle with paying attention, concentrating, and listening, especially if the learning space is crowded or noisy. They may also have difficulty with processing information, including reading comprehension. 
  • Daily Activity Challenges: People with SPD may avoid or have a very hard time with certain routine activities such as dressing, hair brushing, tooth brushing, wearing shoes, or bathing. Really, anything that causes sensory input can be met with challenges due to sensitivities to fabric textures, fabric seams, temperature, food textures/smells, noises/sounds, and more. 
  • Nutritional Challenges: Due to food aversions, or a desire to avoid a possible food aversion, eating can be a challenge for people with SPD. They may stick to a very limited list of foods, and this can lead to nutritional issues and even deficiencies in some cases. Eating outside the home can become a challenge as well, as some restaurants or venues may not offer an option that they would try. 

While there is no single cure for SPD, individuals can benefit from various therapies and interventions tailored to their specific sensory needs. Occupational therapy, sensory integration therapy, and sensory diets are among the approaches used to help individuals with SPD develop coping strategies and improve their ability to function in daily activities.

Awareness of SPD has been growing in recent years, leading to increased advocacy efforts and support for individuals and families affected by the condition. By understanding and addressing the unique sensory needs of individuals with SPD, we can create more inclusive environments and enhance their overall well-being.


Importance of Recognizing and Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder

The sooner that SPD is identified, the better. Once SPD is recognized, interventions and support can be incorporated and it can significantly improve the lives of affected individuals. Understanding that the emotions and behaviors that the person is displaying are caused by a neurological disorder that they cannot help, fosters more patience and understanding from caregivers and the people around them. 


Besides therapies to help treat SPD (discussed in detail below), recognizing SPD also leads to better quality of life and improved social-emotional wellbeing. By facing the challenges of SPD with understanding and support, there is improvement in self-esteem, academic success, and positive social interactions. 


When SPD, and the symptoms of SPD, are discussed openly with others it often results in a more inclusive and supportive environment for them to thrive in. 

What Causes Sensory Processing Disorder?

Though there is not a full and clear understanding of all of the possible causes of SPD, it is thought to be a combination of the following potential causes:

  • Genetics: As with many conditions, there is evidence that suggests a genetic component to SPD. A family history of SPD can also make it more likely to have SPD. 
  • Neurological Changes: It is clear from several research studies that SPD is a real disorder with visible abnormalities and differences in the brain and the way it processes input. 
  • Pre-Natal and Perinatal Factors: Several studies have found that there are many factors related to events and exposures during pregnancy as well as during the birth that may contribute to SPD. In one study, for example, premature births and births by C-section were found to have a higher risk of SPD.  Other things like medication, drug, infection, or chemical exposure during pregnancy are other possible factors that need further study. 
  • Infancy and Early Childhood: Factors like trauma, over- or under-stimulating upbringings, and neglect can also contribute to SPD, though many people with SPD do not have a history of these. 


How to Diagnose Sensory Processing Disorder

Getting a diagnosis of SPD can be challenging, because there is not a standardized way to test for it yet. The diagnosis is based on a caregiver (if a child) or a person’s own description of their symptoms, a clinician’s expertise and observations, and standardized questionnaires on development and sensory issues that can provide additional insights. 


Challenges in diagnosing Sensory Processing Disorder

Because there are so many different possible signs and symptoms, and likely many different subtypes of SPD, it is often difficult to get a clear diagnosis. Unlike other diseases that have imaging, laboratory, or physical tests to come to a diagnosis, SPD is currently diagnosed based on symptoms and questionnaires. 


How is Sensory Processing Disorder Treated?

Treatment for sensory processing disorder involves a multi-factorial approach, with the goal of improving sensory issues, emotional issues, behavioral issues and daily functioning. 

Most commonly, the treatment will involve one or more of the following:

  • Occupational Therapy (OT): An occupational therapist can address many of the sensory issues and also make recommendations for changes in the home, school, or work environments to help the person with SPD. Some of the therapies they use are:
    • Sensory Integration Therapy: This will involve activities to help regulate sensory input and processing. 
    • Sensory Exposure/Desensitization: This will involve targeting specific aversions or sensitivities by slowly exposing the person to them. For example, it might be trying small amounts of a food or skin being brushed with a soft brush. 
    • There are many occupational therapy toys available here
  • Physical Therapy (PT): A physical therapist can help with coordination and balance issues. 
  • Sensory Diet: Though it sounds like it’s all about food, a sensory diet plan actually is a plan of structured sensory activities as well as calming activities throughout the person’s day. 
  • Parent, Caregiver, Teacher, or Workplace Education: Educating the people who spend time with the person with SPD is very important for effective treatment. This will help those around them to understand the challenges of SPD and implement changes in the home, school, or workplace to help them. 
  • Behavioral Therapy: A psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist or counselor can be helpful in addressing specific SPD symptoms like anxiety, impulse control, social skills, and meltdowns. 
  • Medications: In some cases, medications for anxiety, hyperactivity, attention issues, or sleep difficulties can be helpful. 


Creating Sensory-Friendly Environments at Home, School, and Work

Creating a sensory-friendly environment will look different for each person, depending on their symptoms. Some ideas for creating this environment include:

  • Decrease Sensory Overload: Minimizing clutter, visual distractions, screens, lights, and moving objects can help with the visual component of SPD. Stick to soft colors and use natural light as much as possible rather than flashing or fluorescent lighting. 
  • Sensory-Friendly Furniture: Choose comfortable and supportive seating with soft textures. Offer seating choices that the person prefers, which may be a beanbag, socking chair, floor cushion, or exercise ball. Have sensory items like stress balls, weighted blankets, or textured pads available if those are soothing. 
  • Create a Quiet Space: Having a safe, quiet place the person can retreat to to unwind when needed can be very helpful. If there is no space for this, consider eye covers and noise canceling headphones or other ways they can rest. 
  • Provide Sensory Activities: Offer tactile activities like water, sand, or other sensory bin items. For those who are soothed by movement, consider having a swing or something to jump/bounce on. 
  • Sensory-Friendly Clothing: There are many great sensory-friendly clothing options. Look for soft materials, seamless options, and clothing that is stretchy rather than stiff. 
  • Routines: Having a clear and regular routine or schedule will help reduce anxiety and make transitions easier. 


Support groups and communities for individuals and families affected by SPD

If you ever feel overwhelmed and need help, let your healthcare professional know as they may have local resources available. Here are some great organizations and groups that are supporting families with SPD:


STAR Institute: STAR Institute for Sensory Processing is the world leader in research, education, and therapy for differences in sensory processing. Families, individuals, professionals, and more come from all over the world to receive support and education from the STAR team.


Sensory Processing Disorder Online Support Group: This Facebook group has over 100k members, primarily parents of children with SPD. 

Future Directions and New Research on Sensory Processing Disorder

Some of the areas currently being researched are:

  • Imaging tests for SPD (brain scans like CT, MRI and fMRI)
  • Neurological tests for SPD (electroencephalography (EEG) and Electromyography (EMG))
  • Genetic tests for SPD
  • Defining the subtypes of SPD
  • Better diagnostic questionnaires and tools
  • Treatments for SPD (medications, therapies)


Potential Sensory Processing Disorder Treatments and Therapies on the Horizon

As research into Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) continues to evolve, several potential treatments and therapies are emerging on the horizon. These include:

  • Virtual Reality (VR): VR can be used to immerse the person with SPD in different environments and could potentially help to desensitize them to certain things. 
  • Neurofeedback Therapy: This therapy would involve using live feedback from the person’s brain to help them regulate their responses to sensory stimuli. 
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS): This therapy is being studied as a possible treatment for SPD. It works by applying magnetic pulses to specific regions of the brain to modulate neural activity.
  • Medications: The hope is to find medications that can target the neurotransmitters implicated in causing SPD symptoms. 


In Summary on SPD

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that causes difficulties in effectively processing and integrating sensory stimuli from the environment. People with SPD may experience hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory input, leading to challenges in regulating emotions, behavior, and responses to everyday things. These difficulties can impact various aspects of daily life, including social interactions, academic performance, and emotional well-being. Diagnosis of SPD can be complex, and early identification is crucial for implementing appropriate interventions and support strategies.

Treatment for SPD typically involves a multidisciplinary approach, including occupational therapy, sensory integration techniques, environmental modifications, and behavioral interventions.

By recognizing and addressing sensory processing difficulties, individuals with SPD can improve their functional abilities, enhance their quality of life, and better navigate their sensory experiences. Ongoing research into the underlying mechanisms of SPD and the development of innovative treatments offer hope for further advancements in diagnosis, intervention, and support for individuals affected by this condition.