Sensory Processing Disorder – The Ultimate Guide

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are frequently identified as having behavior and/or emotional problems, speech delays, learning difficulties, or difficulties attending. This often leads to children being misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all with Sensory Processing Disorder. It is important for both parents and professionals to understand why a child could be having challenges because one of the primary causes may be the way in which a child processes sensory information.

Senses help children interpret and organize their environment, which then helps them respond appropriately to situations. When a child’s sensory system is not functioning properly it leads a child to feel overwhelmed because they do not know how to react to situations. This disorder can be very complex because the sensory system is comprised of eight senses, and a child with SPD can have multiple sensory systems impacted at once.

Sensory Processing Disorder

What is a sensory system?

Many people think the sensory system is made up of five senses; however, the sensory system is comprised of eight senses. Below is a list of the eight senses that contribute to SPD:

1. Visual (sight) is a child’s ability to see things such as colors, shapes, depth, lighting, and to scan and filter out visual information.

2. Auditory (hearing) is a child’s ability to hear, listen, filter, and selectively attend to auditory stimuli.  It also affects speech and language.

3. Tactile (touch) is anything that can be touched and felt on a child’s body thru their skin receptors.

4. Olfactory (smell) is a child’s ability to smell if something is good or bad. The sense of smell is connected to emotions in the brain and can cause feelings of comfort and alarm.

5. Gustatory (taste) is the child’s ability to determine what foods and/or drinks they like and what to stay away from.  It is a way for a child to decide if something is dangerous to ingest based on if it tastes good or bad.

6. Vestibular (located in the inner ear and helps with balance) is the child’s ability to identify when they are sitting, lying down, upside down, standing, spinning, etc.

7. Proprioception (senses from muscles, joints, and ligaments) is a child’s internal sense that allows them to know where their body parts are “in space” and what they are doing with their body parts without looking for them.

8. Interoception (senses from internal organs) is the child’s ability to identify internal functions such as hunger, thirst, and when to use the bathroom.

Causes of Sensory Processing Disorders

Although researchers have identified that both genetic and environmental factors can contribute to sensory issues, there is no known cause.  Children who are born prematurely or children who have a behavioral and/or developmental disorder are likely to have sensory issues.  Often, children who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or ADD/ADHD are also diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder.

Can a child outgrow Sensory Processing Disorder?

Depending on the severity of a child’s Sensory Processing Disorder, a child may or may not outgrow it. In less severe cases, a child may have an underdeveloped sensory system, and once their sensory system matures and develops, they might outgrow some of their sensory symptoms. However, for the majority of children diagnosed with SPD, their sensory symptoms are life long and never fully go away. Based on a child’s sensory profile and with proper interventions and modifications they will have to learn to develop coping strategies to manage their sensory challenges throughout their life.

What are the signs of Sensory Processing Disorder?

Since a child with Sensory Processing Disorder has trouble organizing and responding to information that comes through their senses, they will often exhibit one of the two symptoms listed below:

1. Oversensitive Symptoms (Hypersensitivity)

These children avoid sensory input because it is too overwhelming for them. They react to a wide range of triggers (some are listed below) that may lead to a sensory meltdown:

  • Easily startled and shows extreme fear to sudden and loud sounds and noises (i.e., toilets flushing, crowd cheering, fire drill, etc.).
  • May be distracted by background noises that others don’t hear
  • Easily overwhelmed by people and crowded spaces and seeks out quiet spots
  • Is bothered by bright lights
  • Uncomfortable with touch and often avoids hugs and cuddling
  • Refuses to wear itchy or uncomfortable clothing
  • Has a strong reaction to certain foods, smells, or textures and refuses to try new foods
  • Gets upset about small changes in routine and trying new activities

2. Undersensitive Symptoms (Hyposensitivity)

These children are sensory seeking because they are looking for more sensory input. They are always “on the move” and may seek out new and novel situations. Below is a list of symptoms undersensitive children may exhibit:

  • Constantly touching objects
  • Squirms and fidgets
  • Easily distracted
  • Plays rough
  • Has a high pain tolerance
  • May harm others or pets because they are unaware of their own strength
  • Looks clumsy or uncoordinated by bumping into things
  • Takes physical risks that can be dangerous at times, and known as a “thrill seeker”
  • Invades others personal space

How to diagnose Sensory Processing Disorder?

They are a few assessments and checklists such as the Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT) and the Sensory Processing Measure (SPM) that help determine if a child has Sensory Processing Disorder. The first step is when a parent or professional notices a child is exhibiting the above signs of SPD they should immediately make an appointment with a pediatrician. Discuss the signs and concerns with the pediatrician and ask for a referral to see an Occupational Therapist (OT) so they can screen and assess the child for Sensory Processing Disorder.

Does Sensory Processing Disorder affect learning?

While Sensory Processing Disorder isn’t a learning disorder, the symptoms can impede how a child learns within a classroom setting. For example, a child with SPD who is oversensitive may be bothered by the classroom lights, noises within the classroom (i.e., children talking), feeling uncomfortable in their clothes, can get upset when there are sudden changes in the classroom routine (i.e., an assembly).

In addition, the noises and smells in the school cafeteria can also be bothersome to a child with SPD. A teacher cannot expect a child to learn a new math concept, write a paragraph, or read and comprehend a story if the child’s shirt tag is making them itchy or the florescent lights in the classroom are too bright for their eyes, or they hear the toilet constantly flushing outside the classroom.

Another example is an undersensitive child who may have trouble sitting still at a desk, and they may constantly touch classroom materials and continuously bump into desks and chairs in which their teacher may consider them to be impulsive. The undersensitive child may also have trouble making and keeping friends because they are too rough when they play with their peers, or they may have trouble standing still long enough to have a conversation with a peer.

Regardless, if a child with SPD is oversensitive or undersensitive to expect them to function seven to eight hours a day in an environment that challenges their sensory system is setting them up to fail within a school environment. However, with an appropriate diagnosis, there are interventions, therapeutic strategies, toys, clothing, and modifications that can be made to help a child with Sensory Processing Disorder learn to cope and organize their sensory system so they can successfully learn and thrive in a school environment.



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How to help a child with Sensory Processing Disorder?

The sensory system of a child with Sensory Processing Disorder is challenged daily. With that being said, it is important to find the appropriate interventions, therapeutic strategies, toys, clothing, and modifications to implement in order to help a child organize their sensory system. Below is a list of six ways to help a child with SPD organize their sensory system:

1. Sensory Integration Therapy is a specialized therapy implemented by a trained Occupational Therapist. Children in therapy sessions are exposed to sensory-stimulating activities based on their sensory needs. The OT works and teaches the child coping strategies while being exposed to stimulating stimuli. The activities are presented in a controlled, fun, and structured way that allows the child to be experience sensory stimulation without feeling overwhelmed.

2. Sensory Diet is a treatment approach in which an Occupational Therapist designs a list of physical activities that a child can do throughout the day either at home or school. These sensory diet activities are designed to meet the sensory needs of the child and to provide them with sensory input. Activities can either calm (i.e., doing wall push-ups, jumping on a trampoline) or arouse the sensory system (i.e., bounce on yoga ball or swing.)

3. Sensory Room is a specially designed room that combines a variety of sensory stimuli. The rooms are designed in a way to help children with Sensory Processing Disorder to engage and explore with their senses in a safe and non-stressful environment. These rooms usually have dimmed lights, calming sounds, and colors, aromatherapy, and have different play stimuli that provide different sensory input.  Play objects can include crash pads, bubble tubes, water beads, and swings… just to name a few items.

4. Exercises for Sensory Processing Disorder depending on the child’s sensory processing needs, there are countless exercises that a child can do to help organize their sensory system. Sensory exercises are beneficial because they prompt the brain to process information more effectively, thus helping the child respond more appropriately.  Below are a few examples of exercises that a child with SPD can do to target different areas of sensory input:

  • Tactile – exercises that allow a child to explore and organize their sensory system through touch. Example exercises are filling a tub with beans, rice, or water beads and having the child put their hands and/or feet in the tub, playing with shaving cream on a table, and the brushing protocol.
  • Vestibular – exercises that stimulate the vestibular system in the inner ear. Example exercises are any exercises that stimulate the vestibular system in the inner ear. Example exercises are swinging, rolling on the floor or a yoga ball, and riding a scooter board on the stomach.
  • Proprioceptive – exercises that help a child feel their muscles and joints. Example exercises are jumping jacks, wheelbarrow walking and clapping games.
  • Oral-Motor – exercises that involve sensory stimulation of the mouth that include lips, tongue, and jaw. Example exercises are chewing gum, eating foods with different textures and strong tastes, and blowing exercises like using a straw to blow bubbles or blowing a whistle.

5. Sensory Toys are toys that are designed to help soothe a child with Sensory Processing Disorder. Below is a list of toys that are best suited for specific sensory systems:

  • Visual – Lava lamps, bubble tubes, any toy that lights up or spins.
  • Auditory – Rainmaker toys, noisy toys, calming music
  • Tactile – Water beads, moon sand, shaving cream, slime, fidget spinners
  • Olfactory – Scented markers, scented stickers, scratch-n-sniff books, scented bubbles
  • Gustatory – Chewing gum, sensory chew toys
  • Vestibular – Scooter board, therapy swing, steamroller, balance board, sit and spin
  • Proprioception – Trampoline, pogo stick, Hippity Hop

6. Sensory Clothing – Children with SPD are often bothered by their clothing. This can range from the tags on their clothes, to textured material, to seams on pants and socks.  When clothing starts to interfere with a child’s ability to function daily, clothing modifications need to be implemented. Below is a list of some adaptive clothing options and therapeutic items that children with SPD can wear:

  • Compression or undershirts
  • Clothes made of soft material and don’t have any tags or seams
  • Smart Knit Seamless Socks
  • Weighted Vests
  • Noise Reduction Headphones
  • Sensory Sock
  • Weighted Blanket or Lap Pad
  • Chewable Jewelry
  • Fidget Jewelry

Although the cause of Sensory Processing Disorder is unknown, and there is no known cure, a child who receives an appropriate diagnosis can learn to function in their environment. With the right therapeutic interventions to include potential work with an occupational therapist, exercises, toys, and modifications, a child with SPD can receive the sensory feedback needed to help organize their brain and make appropriate responses. Since Sensory Processing Disorder is lifelong, children with sensory issues can learn coping strategies to help them live productive and happy lives.

Autism Parenting Magazine tries to deliver honest, unbiased reviews, resources, and advice, but please note that due to the variety of capabilities of people on the spectrum, information cannot be guaranteed by the magazine or its writers. Medical content, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images, and other material contained within is never intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read within.

Annette Nuñez

Dr. Annette Nuñez is the founder and director of Breakthrough Interventions, LLC and Breaking Through Autism. She is a licensed psychotherapist and has worked with children with ASD and other related disorders for over 22 years. As part of her doctorate work at the University of Denver, Dr. Nuñez developed the Children’s Social Competence Scale (CSCS). The CSCS is an early intervention evaluation tool that measures social competency in young children. She served as the Program Director for Connect Us, a non-profit organization that helps children cultivate positive relationships through facilitated play. Her research interests include the mainstreaming and socialization of children with High Functioning Autism. Dr. Nuñez co-wrote and self-published the Friendship Is… book. She conducts many seminars both nationally and internationally and has consulted with many schools in China and South Africa. Dr. Nuñez also consults and supervises the therapists at the Breakthrough Interventions site in South Africa. Dr. Nuñez has been featured in the Huffington Post, NPR, The Jenny McCarthy Show, and FOX News. For additional information visit her Websites: www.btinterventions.com/, www.breakingthroughautism.com/ Facebook: www.facebook.com/breakingthroughautism/ and also her account on Instagram: www.instagram.com/breakthrough_autism/

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