The signs of sensory processing differences

This page defines and describes some common signs of sensory issues.  You might see the behaviours if your child has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).  We explore common SPD symptoms, including those experienced by children who have sensory disorders.  We also provide the following SPD checklists:

  • Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist – Signs and symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder

  • Symptoms and Signs of Sensory Issues Checklist – Sensory Modulation Challenges

  • Signs of Sensory Issues in Children – Motor Skill Challenges

girl in beanbag with teacher rolling textured ball text touch sense

The signs of sensory processing differences

This page defines and describes some common signs of sensory issues.  You might see the behaviours if your child has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).  We explore common SPD symptoms, including those experienced by children who have sensory disorders.  We also provide the following SPD checklists:

  • Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist – Signs and symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder

  • Symptoms and Signs of Sensory Issues Checklist – Sensory Modulation Challenges

  • Signs of Sensory Issues in Children – Motor Skill Challenges

If you haven’t read our article  ‘What is Sensory Processing Disorder?’ we recommend that you do before continuing.  This article gives background to sensory integration.  It describes the three different sensory processing issues people may experience.

It is estimated that between 5-16% of children and adults experience sensory issues. People who show signs of sensory issues process sensory information differently to those who do not. Their brains do not connect the sensory messages they receive from their body in the same way as others. This creates a different experience which can be challenging. It is why their response to sensory information is not always what you might expect.  You must always remember that their responses are not right or wrong. They are just different from your own.

It is important to remember that although you may not be experiencing the sensation as a challenge, someone else will have a different experience.  Their interpretation is not right or wrong, it is just how their brain perceives the sensory information.

What are the common signs of sensory issues?

Signs there might be a sensory issue, for both children and adults, may include:

  • Being sensitive to sensory information (over-responding)

  • Being slow to notice or being oblivious to sensory information (under-responding)

  • Looking for more sensory information (sensory seeking or craving)

  • Finding it difficult to plan and organise their movement (dyspraxia)

  • Having poor balance and being clumsy (poor postural control)

  • Having poor awareness of the qualities of sensory information (discrimination)

Lucy Miller (2014) describes these symptoms under the headings of modulation, sensory-based movement and discrimination.  Children (and adults) with Sensory Processing Disorder could experience a combination of sensory processing challenges or may also only have sensory issues in one area.  We explore the sections of Lucy Miller’s model in more depth here.

Sensory Processing Disorder Lucy Miller

How could sensory issues present?

Signs of sensory issues vary depending on which sensory system is affected.  This is why Sensory Processing Disorder can look very different from one child (or adult) to the next.  Each child’s (or adult’s) brain is connecting the sensory messages differently.  This, therefore, results in different reactions and behaviours.  We must always remember that behaviour is only the end product.  It is a clue to us that the child or adult may be finding the sensory information difficult to manage or maybe coordinate.

girl wearing ear defenders and playing with toys text auditory sensitivity

Jessica’s story – sensitivity

Brushing her hair; cutting her hair and nails; wearing socks: Jessica hates them all! Even dressing causes distress. Many fabrics are itchy. The collar on her school shirt irritates her.  These can be signs of sensory issues, specifically touch sensitivity.

When she was younger, Jessica found loud or unexpected sounds felt overwhelming. Unexpected touch also alarms her. Once, she hit a child who brushed past her in the playground. Now she always tries to go to the sick room at lunch to avoid feeling overwhelmed by noise and touch.

Another thing Jessica hates is swimming. Putting her head under water is scary. Jumping in is just terrifying! In fact, learning any new activity is tough for Jessica because planning and organising herself is difficult.

Jessica processes sensory information differently

Her brain is interpreting the touch input from brushing her hair and cutting her nails more intensely (and potentially more painfully) than other people do.

She finds certain noises unbearable. This stops her from being able to participate at lunchtime. It seems that Jessica’s brain is interpreting sound more intensely than others too.  This is a sign of auditory sensitivity.

Jessica presents as having difficulty with modulating touch and noise sensory inputs. Therefore, it is likely she has over-responsivity (sensitivity) in both touch and hearing.  There may also be some sensitivity with her vestibular system.

She finds learning new activities hard and struggles to plan and organise. Some sensory messages from her body aren’t connecting smoothly to allow her to join in. This could mean she also has dyspraxia.

Signs of Sensory Issues – SPD Symptoms and Checklists

As we outlined on the What is SPD? page, unfortunately, SPD does not yet formally exist as a stand-alone diagnosis.  Many of the challenges and behaviours we list in these checklists occur alongside other conditions.  It is important to remember every child (or adult) who experiences sensory issues is different.  There is no one size fits all.  This also means there is not one treatment strategy that fits all.  It is hoped that these checklists provide a starting point for you to consider if a behaviour might be linked to an underlying sensory issue.  We always recommend you seek out extra support from professionals rather than using these lists to self-diagnose.  In addition, we recommend you look at the additional resources and references below for more information.

This table gives examples of behaviours you might observe for the different types of responses.  Use the tabs to look at the different responses.  There are also sensory checklists at the bottom which you can also download.

Sensory sensitivity (over responsivity or hyper reactivity)

  • Shuts down when there is too much sensory input or avoids places with a lot of sensory information.
  • Demonstrates excessive caution or fear when trying new things.  This is usually linked to worry around the sensory experiences this new thing could include.
  • Only eats familiar foods (taste).
  • Dislikes fragrances from perfume or bath products (smell).
  • Likes wearing hats or caps or sunglasses (vision).
  • Dislikes bright lights or sunshine (blinks squints closes eyes) (vision).
  • Startles easily at unexpected sounds (hearing).
  • Is easily distracted by background noises such as a lawnmower outside, an air conditioner, a refrigerator or buzz from fluorescent lights (hearing).
  • Dislikes having messy hands (touch).
  • Struggles with toe and fingernail cutting or haircuts (touch).
  • Fussy with food textures (touch).
  • Is irritated by certain clothing textures, labels, seams and socks. Avoids new clothes (touch).
  • Avoids playing on swings and slides (either now or when younger) (vestibular).

If you want to learn more about sensitivity with the touch sense we recommend our post – What is Tactile Defensiveness?  Another sense that children and adults commonly have sensitivity with is their hearing.  You can learn more about this in our post – Auditory Sensitivity: 3 Things You Should Know.

Sensory slow (under responsivity or hypo reactitivy)

  • Is more passive, quiet, or withdrawn.
  • Is excessively slower to respond to directions or complete assignments.
  • Doesn’t notice or care whether food is spicy or bland (taste).
  • Struggles to distinguish between different smells (smell).
  • Seem oblivious to details of objects and the surrounding environment (including signs) (vision)
  • May not hear sounds in the environment or respond when their name is called (hearing).
  • Doesn’t notice if hands or face are messy or dirty (touch).
  • Doesn’t cry when seriously hurt and isn’t bothered by minor injuries (touch).
  • Bumps into things (vestibular).
  • Uses too much force, and accidentally break things (proprioception).

Sensory seeking (sensory craver)

  • Is hyperactive and constantly on the go.
  • Seeks out extra vestibular sensory input and therefore, may create situations others perceive as bad or dangerous.
  • Seeks out extra touch and proprioceptive sensory inputs so can appear excessively affectionate.
  • Adds salt & spice to their food (taste)
  • Smells people, animals and objects (smell)
  • Watching visually stimulating scenes (e.g. aquarium, spinning objects) (vision)
  • Enjoys noisy environments such as sports arena, shopping centres, malls and the cinema (hearing)
  • Touching people to the point of irritating them (touch)
  • Rocks in their chair on the floor or while standing (vestibular)
  • Rarely gets dizzy (vestibular)
  • Hanging off things (proprioception)
  • Pushing (proprioception)

Poor sensory discrimination or perception

  • Finds it difficult so might avoid puzzles or other visual games.
  • Can be frustrated when unable to separate visual or auditory sensory information.
  • Requires directions to be repeated.
  • Might need more time than other children to perform assigned tasks.

Dyspraxia

  • Has difficulty when learning exercise steps or routines.
  • Shows difficulty with hopping, jumping, skipping or running compared to same-aged peers.
  • Finds drawing, colouring or copying more challenging.
  • Experiences difficulty with cutting and pasting.
  • Can also be frustrated when unable to complete tasks due to poor motor skills.

If you would like to learn more about dyspraxia you can read our post – Dyspraxia – Myths Explained. You can also find more information about the signs of dyspraxia on our page – Is My Child Dyspraxic?

Indicators of postural disorders

  • Appears weaker than other children his or her age.
  • Shows poor balance during motor activities.
  • Has difficulty maintaining posture at the desk/table.
  • Tires easily or appears tired most of the time.
  • Finds it difficult to hold his or own in competitive games like tug of war.

Harry’s story – a mixed pattern of processing

Like Kayla, Harry dislikes loud sounds. If the projector is on in his classroom, it’s all he can focus on. The humming sound it makes means it’s impossible for him to concentrate on his work.

Sluggish to get going during PE, he often trips up and loses balance. Tiring really quickly, he always comes last.

Breaking things accidentally at school and home is normal for Harry. When he plays with his younger sister, his mother is always telling him to ‘be more gentle’.

Harry’s sensory differences

Harry also processes sensory information differently to others. These sensory processing issues suggest that he also has difficulty with sensory modulation.

Harry finds noises, including background noises, harder to ignore. His brain just seems to keep focusing on them rather than what he should be thinking about. For this reason, it seems likely that he has some sound sensitivity.

Harry frequently gets in trouble for being too rough in play and breaking things. Losing balance is common. His vestibular and proprioceptive senses need more sensory input for him to understand what’s going on with his body. These signs of sensory issues suggest that, unlike Kayla, his vestibular and proprioceptive senses are under-responsive and that he has difficulties discriminating proprioceptive input.Furthermore, Harry appears to have poor postural control too.

It is really common for children to have sensory challenges in more than one area of sensory processing.  The SPD checklists below provide more information.  They help to answer the question ‘What are common sensory issues?’ and explore sensory processing disorder symptoms.

How can I get help if I think myself or my child has Sensory Processing Disorder?

The best professional to help identify if your child has sensory processing challenges is an occupational therapist who has additional training in sensory integration.

Where can I find more information about signs of sensory issues or the symptoms of SPD?

Signs of Sensory Issues – Symptoms Checklists

These Sensory Processing Disorder checklists summarise the information on this page.  Each SPD checklist includes some additional information:

Websites and books with useful information

Our page ‘What is Sensory Processing?’ includes a list of additional resources and books you may find helpful.

Online Sensory Processing Disorder training

GriffinOT’s online sensory courses are designed to help you to understand more about the senses and sensory issues in children and adults.  You can find out more information on our sensory courses page.  We have three different courses to choose from, including a free introduction.

Page reference

Miller, L.J. (2014) Sensational Kids Hope and Help for Children with SPD–Revised

Other Articles You Might Be Interested In

ASD-Sensory-Processing-Disorder
child holding sibling text what is sensory regulation
dog chewing a stick

Join Our Community