Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD in short, is a neurological disorder where individuals give abnormal responses to sensory information that the individual perceives.
SPD is in a way difficulty integrating information from the senses. This may cause the individual to be overwhelmed, resulting in confusing behavior.
Sensory processing problems are now considered to be a symptom of autism.
SPD is not included in the diagnostic manual’s fifth edition, DSM-5, which is used by clinicians as a guide in diagnosis.
Many children and individuals with autism have issues with sensory problems. These sensory problems are now listed as one of the criteria for diagnosing autism.
Sensory Disorders in Psychology
In psychology, sensory processing issues is a term that describes a collection of challenges relating to senses.
These challenges occur when the senses fail to respond properly to the stimuli from the outside world.
American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that pediatricians not use SPD as a diagnosis as it is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
Sensory issues are assessed as symptoms of other developmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder
Symptoms of sensory processing disorder may affect each individual differently. It may impact one sense, or multiple senses at the same time.
The responses of people with this disorder can also be different, ranging from over- to under-responsive to certain sensory information.
Some children with the SPD could react to the sound of cars excessively, causing them to vomit, for instance.
While others can react by screaming to being touched. Some react heavily to certain textures or foods.
On the other hand, some children may not be responsive to any of the stimuli around them. They may even not respond to extreme stimuli, like extreme heat, cold, or even pain.
Here are some some sensory overload symptoms:
- Being easily overwhelmed by places and people
- Being easily startled by sudden noises
- Being bothered by bright light
- Refusing to try new foods
- Having a very limited diet and eating only certain foods
Here are some sensory seeking symptoms:
- Playing roughly
- Taking physical risks
- High tolerance to pain
- No understanding of personal space
- Being clumsy and uncoordinated
- Often fidgeting
- Constantly moving
Is Sensory Processing Disorder the same as Autism?
Sensory processing disorder is not autism. Most researchers agree that these sensory challenges exist.
However, it is not classified as a disorder both in the ICD-11 or the DSM-5, which are used by clinicians to diagnose disorders.
These sensory issues are now included as a possible symptom of autism.
What is the Difference Between Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder?
There are certain differences between sensory problems in autism and SPD. These are still being studied. Children with autism experience disruptions in their brain connectivity.
They also struggle with social and emotional pathways. However, these pathways may be intact in children with SPD alone.
Research suggests that children with SPD lean more towards having problems with touch than those with autism.
On the other hand, children with autism seem to struggle more with sound processing compared to children with only SPD.
Causes of Sensory Processing Disorder
No specific cause has been found for sensory processing disorders. However, there are studies that are examining biological reasons causing these issues.
Some research indicates that this can be genetic. Also, birth complications and environmental factors are being looked into.
However, there is no known cause of sensory processing issues. It is important to note that autism does not cause these issues, it co-occur with them.
The Eight Sensory Systems
We are all familiar with our sight, sound, smell, touch and taste as the five basic senses.
However, human beings have actually eight sensory systems.
Researchers found that the following are included in our sensory nervous system:
Also known as sight, this sense helps us interpret what we see. We see the colors, letters, words, shapes, numbers, and lighting which make up the environment around us.
Visual sense is important in terms of making sense of nonverbal cues and track movement while we move for us to not hurt us.
People who have difficulty in processing visual stimuli could struggle with distinguishing necessary information from unneeded ones.
Our tactile or touch sense helps us respond to physical stimuli with the receptors of our skin. This way we know where we are feeling some physical sensation in our body.
Through this act, we can decide whether this touch is safe or dangerous, and protect ourselves in the event it is dangerous.
People who have difficulty with tactile sense may not be able to tell the difference between safe or dangerous touch.
They may overreact to a light touch, thinking it is a threat. This may cause them to be really anxious.
Sense of olfactory or smell is found to be connected to our memories and emotions.
A certain smell can cause a person to feel frightened or relaxed, reminding of a past experience.
Auditory or sound sense helps us interpret what we hear around us. The frequency of the sound we hear has also a meaning.
Our brain hears the sound and makes sense of it and understands speech.
People who have difficulty with their sense of sound may not be able to filter out important auditory information. This may cause them to have problems with attention.
Through our gustatory or taste sense, we can identify what kinds of foods we like. We can also tell if the food is dangerous.
People who have difficulty with this sense may seem like a picky eater. They may have specific taste preferences, but they may also be sensitive to certain texture of foods.
- Vestibular/Body Movements
This system works to help body balance. Through the vestibular system we become aware where we are in a space.
It works along with auditory and visual senses so as to establish balance, eye control, and coordination.
Those who have difficulty with interpreting vestibular system information could be prone to bumping into things, or more clumsy.
On the other hand, they may be into dancing where swinging is incorporated. These individuals may seek vestibular sensory input.
They may have a hard time sitting still in a chair but love climbing or spinning.
- Proprioception/Body Awareness
This sense works similarly to the vestibular system. But proprioception or body awareness mainly refers to the interpretation of the relationship and energy between each body part.
Children with sensory issues may struggle to know where their muscles are located or whether these muscles are flexed or not.
They may not know how a body part responds to a certain external stimuli.
This sense is the latest sense to be discovered. Interoception relates to basic primary functions like hunger, toilet needs or breathing.
People with difficulty with interoception sense may not be aware that they are hungry or thirsty.
What are the 3 Patterns of Sensory Processing Disorders?
The severity and symptoms of sensory processing problems greatly vary from one person to another.
These problems can occur in any of the senses, be it visual, auditory, smell or interoception.
There have been three patterns of sensory processing disorders identified, consisting of six subtypes of SPD.
Most of the individuals with the SPD have a combination of symptoms from more than one subtype.
The following chart will give a basic idea.
Sensory Disorders List
Here are the three sensory processing disorder patterns with the subtypes.
Pattern 1: Sensory Modulation Disorder
Sensory over-responsivity means being more sensitive to sensory stimuli compared to most people.
People with sensory over-responsivity feel sensations too easily or intensely. This may cause them to become overwhelmed with the sensation, leading to the fight or flight response.
Under-responsivity to sensory stimuli can make individuals quiet and passive.
Individuals who are under-responsive may not respond to stimuli, or the intensity might not be at a usual level.
They may seem self-absorbed or withdrawn because they do not detect the sensory input.
Under-responsive children may hurt themselves because they may not perceive too hot or too cold, and they may not notice pain when they fall.
In this pattern, individuals actively look for sensory stimulation. They tend to move constantly, crash or bump into things or jump all the time.
They want, or need to touch everything, or be affectionate without understanding the personal space.
Pattern 2: Sensory-Based Disorder
Postural disorder causes difficulty with stabilization of the individual’s body during movement or at rest so as to meet the demands of the current environment or a motor task at hand.
A good postural control enables reaching, pushing, etc. However, poor postural control means the individual does not have the body control to maintain a good standing or sitting position.
Dyspraxia/Motor Planning Problems
Dyspraxia, also known as the developmental coordination disorder (DCD), is a condition that affects physical coordination.
Individuals with this problem have difficulty in planning and carrying out new motor actions as they cannot process sensory information properly.
These individuals are often clumsy and accident-prone.
Pattern 3: Sensory Discrimination Disorder
Individuals with sensory discrimination disorder difficulties struggle in determining the sensory characteristics of the stimuli.
This causes them to not be able to properly interpret or attribute meaning to the qualities of the stimuli.
They may confuse P with Q, or the word “cat” with “cap”. It may take time for them to process the information.
Senses are the brain’s way of processing information obtained from the environment. Touching is one of them.
When a person touches an object, neural receptors in the skin are activated.
This sense helps us to gather information regarding pain, tension, temperature, texture, shape, and many other aspects of the stimuli.
These receptors are also located in the muscles, joints and bones, so throughout the body we have sensory systems to help us obtain information.
Individuals with sensory processing issues have problems with processing touch based sensations. Their brains either think that the information is “too much” or “not enough”.
When the individuals feel like the information is too much, they may overreact to touching, avoid touch altogether, or not like clothing on their skin.
Likewise, when they feel like the information is too little, they may want to constantly touch everything, not understand personal space, or have high pain tolerance.
How Do You Test for Sensory Processing Disorder?
The first thing to do is to observe your child’s behaviors. Maybe they avoid itchy fabrics or they don’t like scented candles.
Or you may be an adult experiencing the same reactions to certain types of foods or textures. These could be a sign of sensory processing disorder.
There are tests and checklists online that can be utilized. These would provide a broad idea whether or not the person might have SPD.
However, professional evaluation is essential in terms of both proper diagnosis as well as for learning treatment options.
Occupational therapists trained in sensory integration would be really helpful.
Types of Sensory Disorders in Adults
Children who suffer from sensory disorders could live through their adult lives with the disorder if not recognized or diagnosed. Adults may also show symptoms of sensory disorders.
They may feel like the lights are not bright enough, or the sounds are muted. They could feel overwhelmed also by the overstimulation.
Sensory processing disorders can affect every aspect of the life of the adult from getting dressed to eating.
Here are some of the common triggers that may cause discomfort to adults with SPD:
- Coarse fabrics
- Strong odors like perfumes
- Bright lights like sunshine
- Wearing shoes
- Tags on clothes
- Textured food
Adults could be hypo or hypersensitive to external stimuli. This could mean that they may have SPD.
They could feel “attacked” by the feelings they have due to the sensory overload. These experiences could be detrimental to their physical and mental health.
Inability to Process Sensory Data
Processing disorders such as the Auditory Processing Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder are caused by a certain deficiency in an individual’s ability to use effectively the information that is collected through the senses.
Sometimes the brain cannot process auditory, visual and other sensory information it receives.
In this case of inability to process sensory data properly, the person’s ability to learn or be comfortable or make sense of the environment becomes impaired.
Sensory Disorders in Children
When a child has difficulties in receiving or responding to data obtained from their senses, sensory issues may be occuring.
The common symptoms of sensory processing issues in children include the following:
- Resisting or avoiding touch
- Aversion to triggers of senses
There is no definitive reason or cause known indicating why children experience these sensory issues. Children may have sensory problems in eight main areas:
- Vestibular/Body Movements
- Proprioception/Body Awareness
Although we have been mentioning sensory issues as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), it has not been officially recognized by the DSM-5 as a diagnosis.
Instead of being a standalone diagnosis, it is now recognized as symptoms of other disorders such as ASD.
The symptoms present differently for each child. Children who are easily stimulated may have hypersensitivity, while those who are not experience fewer sensations and have hyposensitivity.
The type of sensitivity determines the symptoms. Hypersensitive children react to little sounds as they are too loud.
They may not like certain smells. It may become a struggle for them to be in a noisy environment. Hypersensitive children may:
- Have a low pain threshold
- Be picky in terms of food
- Appear clumsy
On the other hand, hyposensitive children actually seek interaction with their environment. They try to get sensory feedback by trying to engage in their own way.
They may seem hyperactive, always on the move. They may not feed pain when they hold their hands against a hot surface.
Can a Child Outgrow Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory processing issues are generally identified in children. When they go without being diagnosed, these children may grow into adulthood still suffering from such issues.
Sensory processing disorder also co-occur with other conditions like autism spectrum disorder.
The symptoms of sensory processing issues vary greatly depending on various characteristics reflected on the child.
It is possible for a child to outgrow sensory processing disorders. This, of course, depends on the severity of the issues.
A child with a less severe case may just have an immature system. This means that they may be able to outgrow the issues as their sensory system matures over time while they grow up.
However, the disorder may also be permanent and the child might have to equip themselves with coping strategies to have a comfortable life.
Sensory processing issues are still being researched. It is difficult to assess whether or not there is a permanent solution without the results of these research.
Occupational therapy has been found effective in terms of reducing or removing symptoms. But this progress may take weeks for some children while it can take years for others.
In conclusion, it may be possible to outgrow sensory processing disorder. But it really depends on the severity and individual characteristics of the case.
Behaviours Caused by Sensory Processing Disorders in Children
Here are some of the behaviors caused by sensory processing issues in children:
- Wanting to always touch things
- Putting things in mouth
- High pain threshold (for hypersensitive children)
- Low pain threshold (for hyposensitive children)
- Difficulty focusing
- Urge to cover ears or eyes from sensory input
- Stress and anxiety about surroundings
- Being uncoordinated
- Bumping into things
- Being unable to tell where limbs are in space
- Difficult to engage in play
What are Examples of Sensory Issues?
Just like autism, the symptoms of sensory processing issues are also a spectrum.
Some children may be oversensitive to sensory information, while others may seek sensory input. Some children can be both sensory avoiding and sensory seeking.
Here are some examples of sensory avoiding behaviors for hypersensitive children:
- Being easily overwhelmed by places and people
- Being overwhelmed in noisy places
- Seeking quiet spots in crowded environments
- Being easily startled by sudden noises
- Refusing to wear itchy or scratchy clothes
- Responding extremely to sudden noises that may seen unoffensive to others
- Noticing or being distracted by background noises that other people might not hear
- Having poor balance
The following are some examples of sensory seeking behaviors for hyposensitive children:
- Always touching objects
- Rough play
- Taking physical risks
- High tolerance for pain
- Being always on the move
- Being clumsy and uncoordinated
- Always touching to feel texture even when it is inappropriate
- Not being able to understand their strengths and hurting other people while playing
- Being unable to sit still
- Not understanding and invading personal space
Difference Between Hypo- and Hypersensitivity
Hypersensitivity is when children are extremely reactive to sensory stimulation. They may find these stimuli overwhelming.
Sunlight could be too bright or a noise level that would not bother others could make them cover their ears.
Hyposensitivity is when children are under-sensitive to stimulation. This makes them want to seek out more sensory stimulation.
They may want to constantly touch things to feel their texture, love jumping up and down and bumping into things. They may have high tolerance for pain.
Over Responsive Sensory
Sensory over-responsivity is one of the subtypes of SPD where an individual with this issue is more sensitive to sensory stimulation compared to most people.
They are hypersensitive to external stimulation. They may not like being touched unexpectedly and react in extreme ways.
How do I Calm My Child with SPD?
When you suspect that your child’s behaviors indicate SPD, the first thing to do would be to get an evaluation by a professional.
These professionals and occupational therapists would provide resources and recommendations on how to cope with the symptoms and help your child with their senses.
There are also techniques that can be used to alleviate stress. This is called “mindfulness”. In this technique, you ask the child to describe what they see, hear, taste or touch which can help them calm down.
Asking your child about the feelings they have in their bodies could also be helpful.
They will be able to discover what is going on and understand the process, and learn how they can appropriately respond.
Each child is different; so you will discover what will work best for your child.
Here are some activities that could also help in terms of calming your child down when they are feeling overwhelmed:
- Avoiding overcrowded places
- Going to park for a calming walk
- Playing nature sounds
- Playing with clay or putty
- Finger painting
- Interesting them in swimming
- Encourage them to be active to discover their bodies
What is It Like Living with Sensory Processing Disorder?
If you are a typically developed person, your day might start normal. You wake up to your alarm, have your breakfast and go on your way to work or school.
For a child with sensory processing issues, things are really, really different. Their brain gets a nonstop flow of information from their senses, just like everyone else’s.
While many people can tune out what is not important to them at that time, this child can’t. They have trouble filtering it out.
Let’s look at one day in this child’s life: They wake up with the sunlight coming through the curtains, before their alarm, because the light is bright and irritating.
They then put on their clothes. But tags are itchy. If they have a favorite outfit, they want to wear it everyday even if they are dirty.
At breakfast, they may want their breakfast in a very particular way, with particular food with particular texture. Going outside, the crowd can make them uncomfortable. All the traffic noise is so loud that they can’t focus.
The everyday things for typically developing people can be a struggle for those who are suffering from sensory processing disorder.
Every stimulation and sense can be overwhelming. Through the right interventions and support, they may equip themselves with tools to overcome these obstacles that make daily life really difficult.
Facts About Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory Processing Disorder can affect developing children and adults.
- The disorder is now considered to be symptom of autism spectrum disorder rather than a standalone diagnosis.
- It is a complex disorder of the brain.
- Prevalence of SPD is higher in those with ADHD and Autism compared to the general population.
- Heredity may be one of the cause of SDP.
- Occupational therapy is an effective intervention.
- Sensory processing disorder has unique sensory symptoms that are not explained by other known disorders.
- Significant difference was found between the physiology of children with with sensory processing difficulties and typically developing children.
- Sensory processing issues are not caused by lack of discipline or toughness.