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 motor and behavioral responses” (1). 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 to either over-respond (the sensory stimulation is too overwhelming) or under-respond (by showing little to no reaction to stimulation). A 2009 study found that one in every six children has sensory issues that impede their daily functions (2).
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 (3). They may experience over-responsivity, under-responsivity, or sensory seeking (when a person seeks intense sensations).
- Sensory-Based Motor Disorder may involve difficulty stabilizing the body when moving or at rest (postural disorder), planning sequences or actions, or performing motor tasks (Dyspraxia/Motor Planning problems) (3).
- Sensory Discrimination Disorder causes the person to have trouble distinguishing between different stimuli and therefore reacting improperly to them (3).
What are symptoms of sensory processing disorder?
There are many symptoms of SPD. A few of these are (4):
- Child overreacts to or doesn’t like noises, touch, smell, etc.
- Child moves clumsily, falls, or gets injured as a result of uncontrolled movements
- Child avoids visually stimulating environments
- Child gets in other people’s space and/or touches everything around them
- Child is constantly in motion
- Child uses unnecessary force when handling objects without realizing
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 because they may look “normal,” i.e. they do not have any obvious physical disabilities.
Kids with sensory processing disorders are prone to tantrums, because often they are so overwhelmed by stimulation and sensations in their environments (5). For other children with SPD, their immediate response might be to shut down completely, run away, or lash out.
In some cases, SPD co-occurs with other disabilities such as (2, 6, 7):
- Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE)
- Fragile X syndrome
- Various learning disabilities and language disorders
How do I help my child with sensory processing disorder?
It is best to approach sensory processing disorder by (2):
- Treating the underlying cause: Because SPD is associated with several comorbidities, it is important to talk to your doctor about diagnosis and treatment of these other conditions where applicable.
- Making sensory adjustments: Talk to your child’s teacher and work with other caretakers to make sensory changes, like eliminating fluorescent lighting, changing the type of chair they sit in, or eliminating distracting noises. It can also be helpful to add sensory elements to your child’s day, such as using a vibrating toothbrush, setting the table, eating crunchy foods, etc.
- Occupational therapy: 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. OTs commonly use sensory integration (SI) therapy to assist children with SPDs, because it uses specific movements, resistive body work, and sensory tools to help children with SPDs reach their optimal level of sensory arousal (8). There is not enough evidence to say with certainty that occupational therapy is effective in treating SPDs, but many children with SPDs find OT extremely helpful. 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.
Are there medications available to help my child with SPD?
There are no medications that are recommended specifically to treat children with sensory processing disorders (2), although medications may be recommended for co-occurring conditions. 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:
- Sensory-Friendly Movies and Entertainment
- Mealtime Tips for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorders
- Celebrating the 4th of July: Tips for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorders
- About SPD. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2019, from https://www.spdstar.org/basic/about-spd
- Child Mind Institute. (n.d.). Are There Therapies or Treatments for Sensory Processing Issues? Retrieved May 6, 2019, from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/sensory-processing-disorder-therapies-and-treatments
- Subtypes of SPD. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2019, from https://www.spdstar.org/basic/subtypes-of-spd
- Symptoms Checklist. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2019, from https://www.spdstar.org/basic/symptoms-checklist
- “Sensory Processing FAQ — What it is, how it’s treated, and why it is controversial,” Child Mind Institute (2018): https://childmind.org/article/sensory-processing-faq/
- Co-morbidity. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2019, from https://www.spdstar.org/basic/co-morbidity
- Consensus of the Fragile X Clinical & Research Consortium on Clinical Practices. (2014). Sensory Processing and Integration Issues in Fragile X Syndrome[Brochure]. Author. http://www.fragilex.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Sensory-Integration-Issues-In-Fragile-X-Syndrome-2014-May.pdf
- Arky, B. (n.d.). Treating Sensory Processing Issues. Retrieved May 8, 2019, from https://childmind.org/article/treating-sensory-processing-issues/