Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) defines sensory processing as “the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate responses.” SPD occurs when these sensory signals are not detected by the brain or are not matched with the correct responses. This can cause a person with sensory processing disorder to either over-respond (the sensory stimulation is too overwhelming) or under-respond (by showing little to no reaction to stimulation). A 2004 study published in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy showed that at least one in every 20 kids is affected by SPD daily.

Sensory Processing Disorder

What different subtypes of sensory processing disorders exist?

  • Sensory Modulation Disorder causes the person to have difficulty regulating the intensity of their reactions to sensory input. It is exacerbated by stress.
  • Post-Ocular Disorder causes the person to have issues controlling the body when resting, and also involves poor vision and ocular motor control.
  • Dyspraxia causes the person to have trouble planning and sequencing future unfamiliar actions; they have trouble applying things they have learned to new situations.
    • Sensory Discrimination Disorder causes the person to have trouble distinguishing between different stimuli and therefore reacting properly to them; it often occurs with dyspraxia and substandard skill performance.

What are symptoms of sensory processing disorder?

A few common symptoms of SPD are:

  • over or under-sensitive to stimuli
  • a preference for activities that involve sitting still instead of new motor tasks
  • the use unnecessary force when handling objects and doesn’t realize

To see a full checklist of symptoms, click here. Many children with sensory processing disorder are misdiagnosed due to the disorder not being recognized officially by the DSM and that they look “normal,” but don’t react normally.

Kids with sensory processing disorders are prone to tantrums, because often they are so overwhelmed by stimulation and sensations in their environments. For other children with SPD, their immediate response might be to shut down completely, run away, or lash out.

It is possible that SPD co-occurs with other disabilities such as:

How do I help my child with sensory processing disorder?

The American Occupational Therapy Association defines occupational therapy as the use of techniques such as “work, self-care and play activities to increase development and prevent disability” in order to achieve the maximum level of independence for each individual. Occupational therapists (OTs) work to ensure that their clients can function to the best of their abilities in all occupational areas, whether that is gaining, re-gaining, or maintaining functions.

OTs can be referred to you though your child’s school, or you can seek them out at a private practice. There is not enough evidence to say with certainty that occupational therapy is effective in treating SPDs, but children with SPDs can benefit from OT to help with cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries or muscular dystrophy. Many parents have high praise for occupational therapy and say that it really helps their children, but each child is different so it is best to try multiple methods to see what works best for them. Work with your child’s OT or pediatrician to set goals for your child.

Creating a sensory-friendly environment can be helpful in treating sensory processing disorder. Below, we discuss how to create a sensory-friendly room and its benefits. A sensory-friendly diet can also provide your child with appropriate levels of stimulation while expanding their palate. OT Lindsey Biel has a whole book on the subject titled Raising a Sensory Smart Child and some of her suggestions for eating include:

  • Using a vibrating toothbrush
  • Trying crunchy or chewy foods
  • Trying one new food at a time (to prevent overwhelming your child)
  • Helping set the table

Are there medications available to help my child with SPD?

There are no recommended medications to treat children with sensory processing disorder. Lifestyle changes are found to be the best way to improve the quality of life for those who have sensory processing disorders.

What are activities for children with sensory processing disorders?

Common activities can be slightly altered in order to make them sensory-friendly for those with SPD. For example, cinemas around the country are offering sensory-friendly movies where the lights are brighter, the sound is quieter, and children are allowed to move around the theater and make as much noise as they want. Click here to see our page on sensory-friendly movies for more information!

Creating a sensory-friendly room (also called a sensory gym) in your home can provide a safe environment for your child to play. Whether that is relaxing or stimulating depends on your child’s needs, and this room will be tailored to them specifically. Most children don’t fit into one category or another, which is why it is suggested that an OT help choose what would fit best with your child. This all can be very expensive, but there are many tips and tricks to save money by getting creative. Here are a few pieces of equipment that are the most effective (organized by category):

  • Vestibular activities: A swing that moves in one plane, creating a swaying motion that can either be relaxing or stimulating (ex: hanging platform, hammock, glider rocker, balance boards)
  • Visual input and lighting: Controllable non-fluorescent light sources (ex: lava lamps, bubble columns, tents/huts)
  • Auditory: Soothing sounds come in many forms such as sound pillows, CDs and tapes with nature sounds and classical music, or a white noise machine
  • Taste: Offering various options for tasting, licking, sucking, or chewing new flavors is encouraged; let them try things at their own pace and do not force them to try anything that they might be nervous about. Try using oral massagers before trying new foods to decrease hypersensitivity or give them the stimulation they are craving.
  • Proprioception: Makes the child feel safe by being “squished” or “hugged” by using weighted vests or weighted blankets
  • Smell: Aromatherapy with scented oils, candles, stuffed animals, plants (relaxing scents include vanilla, peppermint, jasmine, lavender; stimulating scents include cinnamon, strong florals, spices)
  • Tactile: Anything that would introduce new textures to your child! Popular options include:

Related Resources on Sensory Processing Disorder:


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