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Sensory Processing Disorder

Therapist working with child hanging in a swinging pod
Does your child cover their ears when they hear certain sounds? Do you notice them being particularly bothered by the feeling of dirt on their hands or tags on their clothing? Maybe he or she has trouble sitting still, and is constantly on the move.

These can be signs of something known as sensory processing disorder.

When we receive input to one of our senses (such as touch, sound, sight, smell, or taste), our brain has to take in, interpret it, and form a response. When we can do that in an appropriate way, we’re “well-modulated”.

But some children have trouble regulating their senses. That can cause them to have difficulties interacting and participating in certain environments. Those children may have a sensory processing disorder.

Children with sensory processing disorder have been shown to have difficulties with behavior and learning.

In order to help your child, it’s important to first understand the details of what sensory processing disorder is. Here’s all of the need-to-know information, including what to do if you suspect your child has sensory processing disorder.

Defining Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological condition in which the brain has difficulty organizing information it receives from the senses.

Our bodies receive input from the 5 well-known senses. But there are actually 3 more types of senses that we process:

Vestibular: movement, balance, and gravity. Having control over this sense helps maintain coordination as we move our body.

Proprioception: also known as kinesthesia. This is how we perceive where our body parts are located, how they are moving (the action), and the degree of force being used.

Interoception: feeling and understanding what is happening inside of your body. This might be knowing and controlling feelings of being hungry, cold, or having butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous.

Limited information is known about SPD, and more research is needed. Sensory processing disorder isn’t currently recognized as an official medical diagnosis.
However, many parents may feel that the characteristics describe their child. The term is used by therapists, such as Occupational Therapists, who can provide support and recommendations for the child.


Because more research is still needed, it isn’t known exactly what causes sensory processing disorder (SPD).
There could be a genetic link, meaning if there is a family history of SPD then a child could be more likely to show signs of the disorder as well.

Certain prenatal conditions have been linked to sensory processing disorder. These include prematurity, maternal stress during pregnancy, exposure to drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, and low birth weight.

Sensory processing disorder is often seen in children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, and developmental delays. However, some children who show characteristics of SPD may appear to be otherwise typically developing.

SPD is common, with 1 in 6 children estimated to experience symptoms of sensory processing difficulties that interfere with how they function daily.

Researchers seem to think that a combination of both genetic and environmental factors contribute to SPD.

What to Look For

Have you ever noticed someone in a meeting who’s shaking their leg back and forth? Behaviors like that, or repeatedly clicking a pen are signs that a person’s body is seeking sensory input.

Here are some signs of sensory processing disorder seen in children:

Hypersensitivity: the brain over-responds to stimuli

  • Notices sounds others may ignore
  • Covers ears for certain sounds
  • Does not like busy/crowded environments
  • Dislikes hands being messy
  • Sensitivity to tastes (ex: certain textures or flavors)
  • Bothered by tags on clothing, the feeling of certain types of clothing, or seams on socks
  • Does not like swinging or certain movements
  • May avoid touch

Hyposensitivity: the brain has an under-response to stimuli

  • Seeks sensory input because of a higher threshold
  • Constant movement/difficulty sitting still
  • Rocking, hand flapping
  • Enjoys spinning
  • Often touches other people or feels things around them
  • Likes to watch certain lights or objects move a certain way (may enjoy holding objects close to their eyes or looking at them from a certain angle)
  • Poor body awareness, which can display as clumsiness

How to Help

Having sensory processing disorder can cause a lot of difficulties for a child during their everyday life. Children may have lower academic performance and difficulty paying attention in a classroom.

SPD, when not addressed during childhood, is associated with issues in adulthood like anxiety, depression, and inattention.

It isn’t something that children are known to simply “outgrow”. Parents can help make a big impact on how a child manages their sensory processing disorder by using the right strategies and seeking intervention when needed.

Occupational Therapy: OT can provide something known as sensory integration therapy. Depending on the child’s needs, activities in OT provide certain types of sensory input or modifications that can help his or her system become better regulated.

Sensory diet: This is a customized plan developed by an OT with activities recommended for the child. It might include things like having the child jump on the trampoline (for vestibular input), or using a therapy brush daily (similar to a massage) for a child who is hypersensitive to touch.

Accommodations: Parents can look for ways to accommodate a child’s sensory needs to help them stay more well regulated. Buying tagless shirts, getting a swing for the backyard, or giving an item meant to be chewed on are some examples.

At school, accommodations might include having the child wear a weighted vest or place their feet on a step stool while seated at their desk.

Additional Resources

Sensory processing disorder can affect a child’s ability to function in everyday life, personally and academically. Parents can help a child who has sensory needs by making certain accommodations and seeking the appropriate treatment.

If you have concerns about your child’s sensory processing abilities, specialized services from an Occupational Therapist can help. An initial evaluation can help determine what difficulties your child is having. Ongoing individualized therapy can include techniques and activities to help improve these areas.

TherapyWorks offers speech therapy, occupational and physical therapy both in person (in Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio) and through teletherapy (nationwide). If you would like to learn more, or discuss your child’s specific needs, please don’t hesitate to reach out to TherapyWorks!

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