Sensory Processing Disorder

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing disorder—also known as SPD or sensory integration disorder—is a widely debated term describing a collection of challenges that occur when our senses fail to respond properly to the world around us.

The five external senses of vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell—as well as our internal vestibular, interoceptive, and proprioceptive senses—are critical for interacting with our environment. When the sensory receptors in our nervous system malfunction, as they’re theorized to do in SPD, common stimuli like lights, noises, and textures may be perceived as too bright, too loud, or too uncomfortable. Sensory processing issues may also manifest as input-related challenges, resulting in sensory-seeking behaviors compensating for low levels of tactile or proprioceptive input.

While most researchers agree that sensory challenges exist, and can be serious, whether or not these issues can be classified as their own disorder is often contested. SPD was not included in the latest edition of the DSM—rather, sensory issues were listed as a possible symptom of autism spectrum disorder—and it was also left out of the ICD-11. But while many children and adults who have sensory integration challenges also have autism (or ADHD, another condition with ties to sensory challenges), many parents and adults continue to advocate for SPD to be recognized by major psychological organizations as its own distinct entity.

Regardless of the formal diagnosis, sensory processing challenges are usually treated with occupational therapy or at-home programs known as “sensory diets,” where children and adults attempt to address their sensory challenges with individualized calming methods or gradually increasing levels of exposure to uncomfortable sensory sensations.

Your Senses and You

One widely disseminated theory related to sensory processing disorder is that of the Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP. The term was coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in the 1990s. She and her collaborators do not believe that “highly sensitive people” have sensory processing disorder, but that  high sensitivity is a personality trait affecting 15 to 20 percent of the population. Like those diagnosed with SPD, “highly sensitive people” display higher reactivity to sensory stimuli like pain, hunger, and noise. Aron and her husband, Art Aron, developed the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS) to measure sensory sensitivity in the adult population.

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