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What is a Sensory Processing Disorder?

May 18th, 2020 | by Mara Kenyon, MS, OTR/L
Mara Kenyon, MS, OTR/L

Mara Kenyon, MS, OTR/L

May 18th, 2020

Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives information from the senses and converts them into responses. Our bodies are constantly receiving sensory input, processing it, and adjusting our responses, without us even realizing it is happening!

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) causes incoming sensory signals to get disorganized, resulting in unusual responses. Imagine that your sensory system is like a set of wires, sending signals from your body to your brain and back. For someone with SPD, those wires are tangled up and plugged into the wrong spots, leading to what looks, to an outsider, like an inappropriate response. 

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Common Signs of SPD 

Children with SPD may show hypersensitivity (reacting too strongly to input) or hyposensitivity (seemingly unaware of input). For those with hyposensitivity, some individuals may seek out higher levels of sensory input to try to get the input their brain needs to process it. It is very common for children with SPD to display a combination of hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, and sensory seeking behaviors.

There is no one way to experience SPD, and it looks different for everyone who has it! That being said, listed below are some common behaviors and signs that may indicate your child is having difficulty organizing and interpreting the sensory information their brain is receiving. 

Signs of Hypersensitivity 

  • Melts down during grooming tasks (washing and brushing hair, trimming nails, brushing teeth, etc.) 
  • Is constantly bothered by clothing tags, seams, and certain types of fabric 
  • Refuses to touch certain textures, such as paint, glue, sand, grass, certain foods 
  • Does not like hugs, cuddles, or rough housing 
  • Withdraws or shuts down in very noisy, crowded places like playgrounds or birthday parties 
  • Gets headaches/nausea when around perfumes, scented cleaning products, or other strong scents 
  • Picky eater, sometimes avoiding entire food groups or textures 
  • Squints in bright lights, often wears sunglasses and hats 
  • Easily distracted by background noise such as refrigerator, fan, the buzz of fluorescent lights, or someone talking in another room 
  • Becomes upset at sounds that do not bother others (vacuum, blender, hair dryer, etc.) 
  • Does not like slides, swings, or being turned upside down 
  • Perceives non-harmful input as painful (for example, shouts in pain when tickled with a feather, says running water hurts their ears, etc.) 

Signs of Hyposensitivity 

  • Seems to move more slowly than other children 
  • May be more passive, quiet, and withdrawn 
  • Doesn’t notice messy hands and face 
  • Doesn’t respond when their name is called, even though their hearing is fine 
  • Has difficulty identifying people in a crowd or items in a drawer 
  • Doesn’t notice injuries and bruises 
  • Bumps into things in the environment because they don’t notice them 
  • Is often clumsy 
  • Has difficulty understanding directions (either written and/or verbal) 

Signs of Sensory Seeking 

  • Child perceived by others as “hyper” and always on the move 
  • Loves to run, jump, spin, and crash 
  • Fidgets and has difficulty remaining still 
  • Takes risks during play – climbing too high, jumping too far 
  • May have an unusual number of injuries for their age broken bones, sprains, stitches, etc.) 
  • Never gets dizzy, even after lots of spinning 
  • Touches people and things to the point of annoying others 
  • Loves sports and other movement-based activities 
  • Loves roller coasters 
  • Makes extra sounds – humming, singing, shouting, etc. 
  • Loves visually stimulating things and places – movies, aquariums, fireworks, malls, etc. 
  • Likes very flavorful and spicy foods 
  • Presses too hard when coloring or writing, often ripping through paper 

How Common is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

SPD affects 5-16% of school-aged children making it more common than autism and just as common as ADHD. It can impact any of the 5 main senses like touch, hearing, sight, taste, and smell or the 2 lesser-known proprioceptive and vestibular senses (the proprioceptive system is the sensation between muscles and joints, and the vestibular system is the sensation of movement) and can be a mixture of over-sensitive to under-sensitive.

What do I do if I Think my Child has SPD? 

If you found yourself reading through the lists above and nodding along, you are likely wondering, “What’s next?” If you suspect that your child has SPD, a good first step is seeking a referral to an occupational therapist. An OT can help identify areas where your child is struggling to respond appropriately to sensory input. They will work with you and your child to determine which sensory processing areas are creating the most difficulty in your child’s life, then develop goals and treatment strategies to help address them. An OT uses play and fun activities to help develop and slowly change your child’s response to sensory input, helping them learn more adaptive, functional responses. They will also work with you to develop techniques and strategies to implement at home for further carry over. 

Additional Resources, Activities, and More

About the Author

Mara has always known she wanted to work with children, and decided to become an OT when she saw how much it helped her younger brother who is autistic. She feels empowered that every day is a new opportunity to make a difference for her clients and their families. When not at NAPA, you’ll probably find Mara playing one of the board games in her giant collection (she owns more than 70) or marathoning Netflix shows.

About NAPA Center

At NAPA Center, we believe in creating individualized programs that address every child’s specific needs across a range of different therapies. Every child is unique, which means implementing unique therapy programs is the only way to help them truly reach their full potential. Contact us today to learn more about our process and our track record of results.

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