What are the symptoms of sensory processing disorder? 

by Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L January 14, 2020

What are the symptoms of sensory processing disorder?

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. 

What is sensory processing?

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. 

What is sensory processing disorder (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. 

  • Tactile- this involves the sense of touch and experiencing different textures 
  • Visual- this is our sense of sight 
  • Gustatory- this system is involved in the sense of taste 
  • Olfactory- this is our sense of smell 
  • Auditory- this is our ability to hear and process sounds 
  • Vestibular- the receptors in this sensory system are located in the inner ear and have a role in balance and coordination of movement 
  • Proprioceptive- Proprioceptors are cells found in the muscles, tendons, and joints in the body. These cells help us understand where our body is in space. For example, if we are raising our hand, the sense of proprioception helps us understand that our arm is above our head 
  • Interoception- this sensory system is involved with having an awareness of internal body feelings. For example, being able to sense when your heart is beating fast or feeling hunger. 

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. 

What are the symptoms of sensory processing disorder? 

Sensory Processing Disorder

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. 

Sensory seeking symptoms

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. 

  • May engage in rough play, such as kicking, rolling, hitting objects, etc. 
  • May appear hyperactive and have difficulty sitting in one position 
  • May appear to have a lack of body awareness 
  • Chews on objects or clothing 
  • May enjoy spinning in circles
  • Can appear clumsy, might often bump into walls or other people 
  • Enjoys loud music and noises
  • Likes to use hands and wants to constantly touch objects in environment 

Sensory avoiding symptoms

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. 

  • May dislike certain clothing fabrics, textures, or tags 
  • Avoids loud music or loud noises  
  • Is bothered by certain textures on hands 
  • Is bothered by certain tastes or food textures 
  • Doesn’t like to engage in movement, may withdraw from physical activities 
  • May exhibit poor fine motor skills (writing, fastening buttons and zippers, tying shoelaces, etc)

Registration Symptoms 

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. 

  • May appear aloof or as if they are unaware of their surroundings 
  • May take a while to respond to their name or respond to directions
  • May not notice errors in school work
  • Might have difficulty maintaining correct posture and may use excessive force when giving hugs, writing, throwing balls, etc. 
  • Exhibits poor body awareness or appears clumsy 

What are treatment options to address SPD symptoms?

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: 


SPD sensory treatment



  • Working one-on-one with an OT in a sensory gym. An OT will assist your child by engaging in sensory-rich experiences so that their brain and body are receiving the needed input.
  • Establishing a sensory diet (prescribed routine of activities) in order to satisfy sensory needs throughout the day. 
  • Making accommodations to established routines in order to better serve sensory needs. For example, incorporating a five-minute movement break in the classroom before a seated activity. 
  • Incorporating sensory equipment into the child’s daily routine as a way to meet sensory needs. For example, using a weighted blanket during specific times of the day. 

Closing Thoughts

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. 


Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L
Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L

Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist with over three years of experience in pediatrics and child/adolescent mental health and has also worked as an adjunct lecturer at the University of North Dakota. Shea has a special interest in program development and developed and implemented occupational therapy programming at a residential treatment center for children. She now practices in an outpatient setting.

Her primary area of interest involves working with children who have experienced developmental trauma. Shea has advanced training in SMART treatment (Sensorimotor Arousal Regulation Treatment), the Zones of Regulation, using sensory-based interventions to address trauma, infant mental health, attachment, and arousal regulation related to trauma disorders.

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