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Sensory Processing Disorder

What to Do When Your Child Has Sensory Processing Disorder

How to recognize the symptoms, find a therapist, and access treatment..

Key points

  • In SPD, sensory signals either go undetected, are uncomfortable, or are indistinguishable from one another.
  • It can look like over-responsivity, under-responsivity, trouble telling sensations apart, or motor problems.
  • A child with sensory processing disorder can have several of these symptoms at the same time.
  • The primary treatment for SPD is sensory integration therapy provided by a trained occupational or physical therapist.

Since I wrote about the differences between autism and sensory processing disorder, SPD, I’ve received many e-mails from parents asking for help recognizing SPD or accessing treatment for the condition. In this post, I’ll provide practical information and resources for anyone who believes a child they love might have SPD.

Keira Burton/Pexels
Source: Keira Burton/Pexels

In sensory processing disorder, signals from the body’s senses either aren’t detected, aren’t comfortable, or aren’t recognizable for what they are. Groundbreaking occupational therapist A. Jean Ayres described SPD as a “rush-hour traffic jam” where the quick and constant flow of sensory signals to the brain has become obstructed or disorganized.

Some differences in sensory processing are normal; after all, no two people experience the world in exactly the same way. I might like to keep the heat in my house on blast while my friend prefers the cold. My child might refuse foods with mushy textures and ask for solids instead.

Minor idiosyncracies like these can be addressed with small changes in the environment or gradual acclimation to unfamiliar sensations.

Sensory differences only rise to the level of a disorder when they interfere with daily life and limit a child's ability to thrive in their surroundings. In these cases, intervention can improve learning, development, and overall well-being.

What are the symptoms of sensory processing disorder?

SPD can affect one sense or several senses. We have more senses than the traditional five—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. SPD might affect the sense of body position (proprioception), balance (equilibrioception), temperature (thermoception), pain (nociception), or the internal organs (interoception).

Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash
Source: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

The condition can manifest as:

1) Over-responsivity to sensation; a sensation that most people would find tolerable might feel highly uncomfortable.

  • Your child is easily overwhelmed in colorful or noisy places like the playground or the supermarket
  • Certain food textures make your child gag
  • Your child startles easily at sudden noise, touch, or movement

2) Under-responsivity to sensation, which may lead to withdrawal at one extreme or sensation-seeking at the other.

  • Your child is struggling with toilet training
  • Your child has trouble staying out of other people's personal space
  • Your child bites their nails, chews their hair, or sucks their clothing

3) Challenges discriminating between sensations.

  • Your child has difficulty reading, especially aloud
  • Your child misinterprets questions or confuses similar-sounding words
  • Your child can’t tell the difference between similar objects, like a dime and a quarter, by touch

4) Motor disturbances, including problems with balance, posture, or coordination.

  • Your child often bumps into things
  • Your child has trouble learning new movements
  • Your child has difficulty performing fine motor tasks like using crayons or writing

A child with SPD can have several of these symptoms at the same time. They might be over-responsive to one sensation and under-responsive to another, or be unable to tell when they feel hungry and be awkward during body movement.

    How is sensory processing disorder diagnosed?

     Leo Rivas/Unsplash
    Source: Leo Rivas/Unsplash

    Diagnosing SPD can be challenging because there’s disagreement in the medical community over whether it should be recognized as a stand-alone disorder or simply a set of symptoms that commonly occur alongside conditions like autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, mood disorders, learning disorders and dyslexia, Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and cerebral palsy.

    If your child is having trouble processing sensations, you should first rule out a medical cause. A child who struggles to distinguish between similar-looking letters, like P and R, might be far-sighted and need glasses. A child who has trouble sensing pain might have a cyst on their spine or a genetic condition like congenital analgesia.

    Once you’ve checked for medical conditions, a doctor, occupational therapist, or physiotherapist with expertise in SPD can perform a screening that checks for sensory processing difficulties. This should tell you whether your child would benefit from treatment.

    How is sensory processing disorder treated?

    The primary treatment for SPD is sensory integration therapy provided by a trained occupational or physical therapist. In sensory integration therapy, the individual with SPD is exposed to sensory stimulation in a structured way to help them adjust to and discriminate between different types of sensory input.

    Source: Monstera/Pexels

    The therapist will begin by assessing your child's symptoms, either through observation or testing, to determine their particular challenges and will then design an individualized treatment plan. Therapy may include listening to or playing musical instruments, smelling flowers, touching surfaces with various textures, or running around a sensory gym with obstacles, trampolines, and swings.

    The therapist may prescribe a sensory diet: a set of at-home activities that a child with SPD and their family should do on a daily basis to support the development of more adaptive responses to sensation.

    When SPD affects language and literacy, a child may also benefit from speech and language therapy administered by a speech therapist. If SPD is related to or is exacerbating PTSD or a mood disorder like depression or anxiety, psychotherapy with a certified psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor might help.


    For more potential symptoms: Symptoms Checklist and Red Flags for SPD.

    To connect with a therapist who specializes in SPD and sensory integration therapy, ask your family doctor for a referral or search for one here:

    Star Institute

    Sensory Integration Education

    USC Chan Sensory Integration

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