The term sensory processing disorder (SPD) has become popular over the last few years, but what does it really encompass?
SPD is not recognized by all professionals as an official disorder and is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) used to diagnose all other mental health disorders, yet the impact of SPD on families can be profound.
We know that it affects approximately 5 to 16 percent of school-aged children and that it can also be part of an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, but not always. It is also known that there are several classes of symptoms associated with SPD, however, each child will have their own unique symptom presentation. To better understand SPD, let’s first discuss what the term sensory processing means.
When we are talking about sensory processing, this describes how we perceive and interact with the world. For example, when you step outside of your home in the morning, you are faced with a variety of sensory inputs. Maybe the sun is shining bright, you can smell fresh flowers from your yard, and the temperature is a bit chilly. These are just three potential sensations you are experiencing in this situation.
The term “sensory processing disorder” describes a diagnosis where someone has difficulty processing the sensory information entering their brain. They are able to see, hear, taste, or feel in the same way as everyone else, however, once that sensation enters the brain to be processed, it is not interpreted correctly.
People with SPD will have strong reactions to stimuli that most would perceive as normal. In this article, we will further discuss what it means to have sensory processing disorder and how the symptoms can impact the life of someone with SPD. We will also briefly overview some of the potential treatment options for SPD.
The human body is complex and is made up of eight sensory systems. These systems work both independently and together to ensure the body is processing sensory information from the environment. Let’s take a brief look at what each sensory system involves.
If a child has a diagnosis of SPD, then one or likely more of these sensory systems are not functioning optimally. As noted above, someone with SPD will have "out of the ordinary" responses to sensory stimuli that most would process as normal.
The symptoms of sensory processing disorder can generally be classified as sensory seeking or sensory avoidance. In addition, some children with SPD have trouble registering input, making them appear aloof or disengaged. We will review each of these categories individually. You can use this symptom list as a guide to determine if your child may have sensory processing difficulties. Please be aware that this is by no means a way to diagnose any kind of disorder. This must be done by a trained professional, such as an occupational therapist.
Children with sensory seeking symptoms have sensory systems that crave input. In order for them to feel internally settled, they engage in actions that will provide a great deal of input to their systems.
Children with sensory avoiding tendencies are oversensitive to certain sensory stimuli within their environment. These stimuli become overwhelming and so they will find ways to avoid it.
The term registration refers to how a person registers or takes in the stimuli around them. If a child has difficulty with registration, this means they are having difficulty noticing or being aware of the sensory occurrences around them. Basically, their brain and body are not processing the number of stimuli from the environment that it should be.
If a child is exhibiting any of the symptoms discussed above, it is important to seek out a formalized evaluation in order to receive a diagnosis. An occupational therapist (OT) is specifically trained to evaluate sensory processing concerns and can work individually with each child and family to implement treatment options.
There are several different treatment options an OT might recommend, and this will be dependent upon many factors including the child’s unique sensory processing tendencies, family involvement, availability of equipment or tools, etc. The bottom line is that it is critical to have a child evaluated in order to determine the best treatment approach. Some treatment options might include:
The symptoms associated with SPD can have a huge impact on the lives of children and their families. In many instances, the symptoms can affect normal daily routines and activities and in turn, add stress to the family unit.
It is our hope that the knowledge provided in this article can assist you in reaching out to your child’s pediatrician if you suspect a problem. Your child’s pediatrician can recommend a formal assessment with an occupational therapist. If the OT determines that a treatment plan is indicated, there are numerous effective ways that sensory processing challenges can be addressed to help your child and family cope, manage daily routines, and better understand your child’s unique sensory needs.
Critz, C., Blake, K., & Nogueira, E. (2015). Sensory processing challenges in children, The Journal for Nurse Practitioners
McCormick, C., Hepburn, S., Young, G., & Rogers, S. (2016). Sensory symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorder, other developmental disorders, and typical development: A longitudinal study, Autism.
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