What is sensory processing disorder?
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition that affects how your brain processes sensory information (stimuli). Sensory information includes things you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. SPD can affect all of your senses, or just one. SPD usually means you’re overly sensitive to stimuli that other people are not. But the disorder can cause the opposite effect, too. In these cases, it takes more stimuli to impact you. On the other hand, lack of sensory input can impact your social and emotional health. For example, hearing loss has been shown to increase the risk of developing dementia because it causes social isolation and depression.
Children are more likely than adults to have SPD. But adults can have symptoms, too. In adults, it’s likely these symptoms have existed since childhood. However, the adults have developed ways to deal with SPD that let them hide the disorder from others.
There is some debate among doctors about whether SPD is a separate disorder. Some doctors argue it isn’t. Some say it’s a diagnosis for things that could be explained as common behavior for children. Others say some children are just highly sensitive. Some doctors say that SPD is a symptom of other disorders—such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, etc.—and not a disorder itself. Other doctors believe your child may suffer from SPD without having another disorder. Some say it’s clear that some children have trouble handling regular sensory information (stimuli). For now, SPD isn’t recognized as an official medical diagnosis. Even so, it is a way to identify those who may need some extra attention in this area.
Symptoms of sensory processing disorder
SPD can affect one sense or multiple senses. Children who have SPD may overreact to sounds, clothing, and food textures. Or they may underreact to sensory input. This causes them to crave more intense thrill-seeking stimuli. Some examples include jumping off tall things or swinging too high on the playground. Also, children with SPD are not always just one or the other. They can be a mixture of oversensitive and under-sensitive.
Children may be oversensitive if they:
- Think clothing feels too scratchy or itchy
- Think lights seem too bright
- Think sounds seem too loud
- Think soft touches feel too hard
- Experience food textures make them gag
- Have poor balance or seem clumsy
- Are afraid to play on the swings
- React poorly to sudden movements, touches, loud noises, or bright lights
- Have behavior problems
Sometimes these symptoms are linked to poor motor skills as well. Your child may have trouble holding a pencil or scissors. They may have trouble climbing stairs or have low muscle tone. They also may have language delays.
In older children, these symptoms may cause low self-confidence. That may lead to social isolation and even depression.
Children may be under-sensitive (sensory-seeking) if they:
- Can’t sit still
- Seek thrills (loves jumping, heights, and spinning)
- Can spin without getting dizzy
- Don’t pick up on social cues
- Don’t recognize personal space
- Chew on things (including their hands and clothing)
- Seek visual stimulation (like electronics)
- Have problems sleeping
- Don’t recognize when their face is dirty or nose is running
What causes sensory processing disorder?
Doctors don’t know what causes SPD. They’re exploring a genetic link, which means it could run in families. Some doctors believe there could be a link between autism and SPD. This could mean that adults who have autism could be more likely to have children who have SPD. But it’s important to note that most people who have SPD don’t have autism.
How is sensory processing disorder diagnosed?
Parents may recognize their child’s behavior is not typical. But most parents may not know why. Don’t be afraid to discuss your child’s behavior with your doctor. They may refer you to an occupational therapist. These professionals can assess your child for SPD. They will likely watch your child interact in certain situations. The therapist will ask your child questions. All of these things will help make a diagnosis.
Can sensory processing disorder be prevented or avoided?
SPD can’t be prevented or avoided because doctors don’t know what causes it.
Sensory processing disorder treatment
Treatment is usually done through therapy. Research shows that starting therapy early is key for treating SPD. Therapy can help children learn how to manage their challenges.
Therapy sessions are led by a trained therapist. He or she will help you and your child learn how to cope with the disorder. Sessions are based on if your child is oversensitive, under-sensitive, or a combination of both.
There are different types of therapy:
Sensory integration therapy (SI). This type of therapy uses fun activities in a controlled environment. With the therapist, your child experiences stimuli without feeling overwhelmed. They can develop coping skills for dealing with that stimuli. Through this therapy, these coping skills can become a regular, everyday response to stimuli.
Sensory diet. Many times, a sensory diet will supplement other SPD therapies. A sensory diet isn’t your typical food diet. It’s a list of sensory activities for home and school. These activities are designed to help your child stay focused and organized during the day. Like SI, a sensory diet is customized based on your child’s needs. A sensory diet at school might include:
- A time every hour when your child could go for a 10-minute walk
- A time twice a day when your child could swing for 10 minutes
- Access to in-class headphones so your child can listen to music while working
- Access to fidget toys
- Access to a desk chair bungee cord. This gives your child a way to move their legs while sitting in the classroom.
Occupational therapy. Your child also may need this therapy to help with other symptoms related to SPD. It can help with fine motor skills, such as handwriting and using scissors. It also can help with gross motor skills, such as climbing stairs and throwing a ball. It can teach everyday skills, such as getting dressed and how to use utensils.
If your child has a sensory deficit, such as a hearing loss, hearing aids can help. Talk to your doctor about being tested for a hearing loss and the hearing aid options that could work for your child.
Check your insurance
Talk to your health insurance representative about how a therapist fits in your health coverage. Many times, insurance won’t pay for therapies used to treat SPD. That’s because SPD isn’t yet recognized as an official diagnosis.
Living with sensory processing disorder
Living with SPD can be hard. Parents of children with SPD can feel alone. They may avoid taking their child out in public to avoid sensory overload. Parents may also feel like they need to make excuses for their child’s behavior.
Adults who have SPD may feel isolated, too. Sensory overload can prevent them from leaving the house. This can make it difficult to go to the store or even to work.
Adults who are struggling with SPD should work with an occupational therapist. The therapist may be able to help them learn new reactions to stimuli. This can lead to changes in how they deal with certain situations. And that may lead to an improved lifestyle.
Sometimes, even if SPD gets better with therapy or age, it may never go away. A major life event or stress can trigger symptoms.
If you are an adult with a hearing loss, talk to your doctor about getting a hearing test and the available options for prescription and over-the-counter hearing aids.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How can I determine whether I have/my child has SPD?
- I have/my child has SPD. Now what?
- How can I help my young child have fun at the playground if they have SPD?
- Can my child live a normal life?
- How might my child react to certain stimuli?
- Will SPD go away as my child gets older?
- Are there any medicines that help SPD?
- Can you help me find out if my insurance will cover therapy?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.