What is Sensory Processing Disorder? And How to Help Your Kids

Sensory play, boy playing with sand
Table of Contents

Sensory Processing Disorder was coined in the 1950s by A. Jean Ayres, PhD, who was an Occupational Therapist. She was interested in how brain function impacted the way children developed and interacted with the world.

Sensory processing refers to how our brains process information from our senses. Our five main senses are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. We also have 3 hidden senses, proprioception, vestibular, and interoception.

This sensory information is then sorted out by our brains so that we can interpret it in a meaningful way and react accordingly. Sensory Processing Disorder is when our brain has difficulty organizing sensory information. This can affect the way we interact with the environment and our actions.

In this article, we are going to talk about all things Sensory Processing, including what it is, what it looks like in children, and how we can help.

What is a Sensory Input?

Before we go into SPD, let’s quickly talk about what sensory input is. Sensory input is the way our brain takes in sensory information. Sensory processing is when our brain uses the sensory input and tries to make sense of it.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is “the inability to use the information received through the senses in order to function smoothly in daily life” (Kranowitz, 2005, p. 9). SPD is an umbrella term and encompasses a range of neurological conditions.

Individuals who have difficulty organizing the sensory information and then create actions based on the environment can have Sensory Processing Disorder.

What are some other names for Sensory Processing Disorder?

There are many other names for SPD, including Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SI Dysfunction), Dysfunction in Sensory Integration (DSI), and sensory integrative problems (Kranowitz, 2005; O’Brien & Kuhaneck, 2019). You also commonly hear SI which is the proper integration (connection) and organization of the senses.

What are the subcategories of Sensory Processing Disorder?

There is a range of models attempting to categorize SPD. The most common ones are listed below:

Dr Lucy Jane Miller (PhD)

According to Dr Lucy Jane Miller (PhD) and her colleagues, there are three subcategories under Sensory Processing Disorder. These include:

  1. Sensory Modulation Disorder,
  2. Sensory Discrimination Disorder, and
  3. Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (Kranowitz, 2005, p. 10).

Dunn’s Model of Sensory Processing 

Winnie Dunn created the quadrant model which talks about sensory processing as an interaction between the neurological threshold (high or low) and self-regulation (active or passive) (Cho, 2021).

What is the prevalence of SPD?

It is hard to know how many individuals have SPD as it is not a recognized condition yet. However, it is estimated that about 5-16% of children have SPD, with it being more common in boys compared to girls (Sensory Health, 2021).

What causes Sensory Processing Disorder?

There is still uncertainty as to what causes SPD. However, some studies have linked to

·      genetic factors,

·      low birth weight,

·      prematurity,

·      environmental exposures, and

·      developmental and health factors (Brout & Miller, 2015; Sensory Health, 2021).

Symptoms of SPD

Signs and symptoms of SPD vary depending on the individual and age. Additionally, sensory integration can fluctuate which means their presentation may change depending on the situation. This means, for one individual, may have different symptoms in different environments.

Some common symptoms include:

  • Covers ears to avoid loud noise
  • Does not being touched 
  • Chews on inedible objects
  • Enjoys spinning or swing-like movements
  • Smells objects, even non-edible objects
  • Poor balance or trips over “nothing”
  • Trouble climbing stairs or playground equipment
  • Uncomfortable around bright lights
  • Reduced motor skills
  • Sensory seeking behaviors

What does a sensory processing disorder look like?

It can look differently depending on the individual. A person with SPD may over-react when feeling touch and find that clothing or physical contact has become too uncomfortable. Another person might under-respond and show little or no response when stimulated or even pain or the extreme cold and heat or simply slow to respond to sensation.

Diagnosing SPD

Can SPD be Diagnosed?

It can be challenging to diagnose SPD as the symptoms often overlap with other disabilities. There are overlaps between SPD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Learning Disabilities (LD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Although there are overlaps, SPD is a stand-alone condition which means individuals can be diagnosed with SPD and none of the other conditions.

Is SPD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V)?

Sensory Processing Disorder is not in the DSM-V but many are trying to advocate and change this. Although SPD is not a recognized condition in the DSM, it is still a recognizable condition as it affects many children.

Who Diagnoses SPD?

Although Occupational Therapists do not diagnose, they can provide assessments and treatment for SPD.

How is SPD Diagnosed?

There is a range of sensory assessments that Occupational Therapists can use to assess SPD.  

Sensory Assessments

Assessments of Sensory Integration (SI) require a comprehensive evaluation as it needs to look at the child, the child’s life situation, and how it affects the family.

Assessments may include interviews, questionnaires, observations, and standardized tests.

Some common assessments that Occupational Therapists use to assess SI include:

  • The SI and Praxis Tests (SIPT)
  • Sensory Profile
  • Sensory Processing Measure

Autism Spectrum Disorder & SPD

In the DSM-5, a component of Autism is the “hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment” (CDC, 2021). This is similar to SPD where individuals may have a hyper- or hyperreactivity to sensory input.  

Sensory processing challenge the way people with autism spectrum disorders experience daily life & their interaction with their environment.

Due to this, SPD is often misdiagnosed as the result of an autism condition. In saying this, most people with Autism have some degree of SPD (Kranowitz, 2005, p. 33). 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder & SPD

Some behaviors of ADHD may interrelate with SPD. However, the core difference between ADHD and SPD is that an individual with ADHD can become habitual (i.e. get used to) senses, however, this may not be the cause for an individual with SPD.

Treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder

Depending on your child’s signs and symptoms and how it is currently affecting your child’s daily life, treatment to address the SPD can look different.

The aim of treatment is to integrate your child’s sensory system. The goal of Occupational Therapy is to increase independence and participation in daily life.

Sensory Integration Therapy

In Occupational Therapy, your Occupational Therapist will work together with your child to help integrate their senses. This may do this through a range of activities like:

  • Exposure to a range of textures through sensory play
  • Developing body awareness and balance
  • Playing on the swing

What is Sensory Diet?

Sensory Diet attempts to “embed individualized sensory experiences at strategic time points throughout the day to support the child’s alertness or calming at appropriate times” (O’Brien & Kuhaneck, 2019, p. 541). This may look like a set of exercises for your child to perform depending if they need to be more alert or to promote calmness.

Sensory Processing Disorder In Children

Sensory development is crucial in early childhood. It allows the child to interact with the world and therefore learns through these interactions. however, where there is no integration, it can be challenging for the child to develop.

This becomes a vicious cycle as the child who hasn’t had the experience to learn these skills may shy away from certain activities, and therefore lag behind their peers.

Sensory processing challenges can definitely affect a child’s everyday life. If remained undiagnosed or no treatment is given, children with sensory processing issues can definitely have trouble throughout life. Sensory processing issues can commonly include sensory overload or under responsiveness of multiple senses.

SPD in Child and behavior

Some children who have SPD may exhibit behavioral responses that parents and teachers who are not familiar with SPD, as being a “naughty child”. For example, if a child who has SPD (undiagnosed) is sensitive to loud noises may run out of the classroom during group time as it is so loud in the classroom. However, an adult who is not familiar with SPD may think the child is avoiding schoolwork.

Alternatively, some children with sensory seeking behavior may constantly fidget or walk around the classroom. Not everyone with SPD will show these symptoms, but a lot do.

It is important to understand the difference between avoidant behaviour and children who have SPD. Children who have SPD have trouble controlling their actions as they are in a “fight or flight” state and their bodies are telling them that they are not safe. In this case, it is important to remove the sensory stimulus that is causing this behaviour.

Can adults have Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological condition which means it impacts the Central Nervous System. Adolescents and adults can have SPD, however, they often use compensatory strategies to manage and process the information, therefore there are less obvious signs (Brout & Miller, 2015).

Living with Sensory Processing Disorder

As mentioned above, children and adults living with sensory processing issues can greatly negatively impact their lives. Whether it is over or under sensory stimulation, individuals living with sensory processing issues need to manage this in all their activities.

Health Professions working with SPD

Occupational Therapists work with individuals who have sensory processing issues. They work with the individual to see how it is affecting their everyday life and implement strategies to help them address this.

Sometimes, children with sensory processing issues may also see other health professionals including:

  • Speech Therapist
  • Psychologist
  • Physical Therapist

To help address some other concerns or delays they may be experiencing.

References

Brout, Jennifer & Miller, Lucy. (2015). DSM-5 Application for Sensory Processing Disorder Appendix A (part 1). 

Cho, M. (2021). Dunn’s Model of Sensory Processing | OT Theory. Retrieved 19 October 2021, from https://ottheory.com/therapy-model/dunns-model-sensory-processing

Diagnostic Criteria | Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) | NCBDDD | CDC. (2021). Retrieved 19 October 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-dsm.html

Kranowitz, C. (2005). The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

O’Brien, J., Kuhaneck, H., & Ball, B. (2020). Case-Smith’s Occupational Therapy for Children and Adolescents. St. Louis, Missouri: Elsevier.

Sensory Health. (2021). Retrieved 19 October 2021, from https://sensoryhealth.org/basic/latest-research-findings

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