Sensory Processing Disorder is a term used to describe the challenges children (and adults) have when their brains are not interpreting the sensory messages they receive from the body effectively. This means they may not generate an appropriate response to sensory information (Bialer & Miller 2011).
Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) might overreact to sensory information. They might also not notice the information, or they may seek more sensory information. Children with SPD may also have dyspraxia or poor postural control. The term Sensory Integration Dysfunction is also sometimes used instead of Sensory Processing Disorder to describe these difficulties.
What does Sensory Processing Disorder look like?
For children with SPD their senses are working, so they might have perfect vision and hearing, but their brain processes the information differently. It is thought that their brain does not integrate sensory information in the same way as others. This means that their response to sensory information might not always be what is expected.
Kayla, for example, dislikes haircuts, having her hair brushed, having her nails cut and wearing socks. She finds certain fabrics really scratchy and uncomfortable and hates the feeling of the collar on her school uniform. She doesn’t like loud sounds or music and when she was younger she used to refuse to go into the toilets for fear of the hand dryer. She has always found swimming tricky and doesn’t like to put her head under the water, and especially hates it when she has to jump in. At school, she once hit a child who brushed past her in the playground and she always tries to go to the sick room at lunch to avoid the noise. She also finds learning new activities really tricky and often can’t plan and organise herself very well. Kayla is processing sensory information differently from her peers.
Harry also dislikes loud sounds and the vacuum cleaner. He finds it almost impossible to concentrate on his work when the projector is on in his classroom as all he can focus on is the humming sound it makes. He is very sluggish and slow to get going during PE and is often tripping up and losing his balance. He gets tired really easily and always comes last. Harry is often breaking things at school and home accidently and his mother is always telling him to ‘be more gentle,’ when playing with his younger sister. Harry is also processing sensory information differently to others.
What is sensory information?
Sensory information is any message that we receive from our senses. This doesn’t just include the five senses that most of us are familiar with, taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch. It includes information from our proprioceptive and vestibular senses as well.
|Sense||Examples of Sensory Information (Sensory Input)|
|Taste||Sweet food, Sour flavours, Savoury food|
|Smell||Perfume, Food smells, Smoke, Flowers|
|Vision||Colours, Text, Moving objects, Shapes, Light|
|Hearing||Noises, Child crying, Vacuum cleaner, Alarm clock, Music|
|Touch||Holding hand, Fabric on skin, Hot mug, Scratch or bruise, Tickling,|
|Proprioception||Squeezing an orange, Pushing a pram/stroller, Pulling, Lifting weight|
|Vestibular||Balance, Moving, Spinning, Swings, Jumping|
Why is Sensory Processing important?
The sensory information that our body receives forms the basis for our decision making. If our brain isn’t processing this information accurately or if it isn’t able to ignore things that aren’t important it is much harder for us to produce an appropriate response. You can compare it to a computer. The input comes from the mouse, keyboard and maybe smart screen. The operating system processes the input and then something is produced. If the operating system isn’t working properly then we might not be able to print or send an email or upload a blog post. The outcome is not what we had hoped.
In sensory processing the brain is like the operating system. If it’s not sending the sensory messages to the right place, or paying enough attention to the right message and organising it in way it can be used, then the response (typically behaviour) may not be appropriate.
In Kayla’s case it seems that her brain might be interpreting the touch input from hair brushing and nail cuts more intensely and potentially more painfully than others would. The same might be happening with her hearing sense she finds the noise more unbearable than others and this stops her from being able to participate at lunch time. She is finding learning new activities hard and struggles to plan and organise, again it seems some of the sensory messages aren’t connecting smoothly to allow her to join in.
Harry also seems to find noises including background noises harder to ignore, his brain just seems to keep focusing on them rather than what he should be thinking about. He is often getting in trouble for being too rough in play and for breaking things. He hates coming last and is starting to wish he just didn’t have to join in. His vestibular and proprioceptive senses seem to need more sensory input for him to understand what’s going on with his body.
What are the components of Sensory Processing Disorder?
Lucy Miller (2014) has identified three parts to SPD:
The first is modulation. Sensory modulation is the ability to produce a behaviour and/or response that matches the nature and intensity of the sensory input and environment (Lucy Miller 2014 p.14). This means that the response to the sensory messages is what would be expected, it would match. The responses of children and adults with Sensory Processing Disorder often do not match the sensory message or environment. There can be challenges with some or all senses. Modulation difficulties can include:
- over-responsivity or sensitivity to sensory input,
- under-responsivity or not responding to sensory input,
- craving or seeking out extra sensory input.
The second is discrimination. Sensory discrimination is knowing what the sensory input was, where it happened and how intense it was. So if you stub your toe your brain should be able to figure out (or discriminate) which toe it was and how hard you banged it. When you put your hand into your bag to find your keys, your touch sense can identify the feeling of your phone and wallet from your keys. When you open a pot of yoghurt your proprioceptive system pulls the lid with enough force to open it but hopefully not spill it everywhere! These are examples of discrimination.
The third is sensory-based movement. In this section, she includes Praxis and Posture. Praxis is the ability to plan and organise new and novel movements it is exceptionally important for learning new skills. People are often more familiar with the term dyspraxia which means difficulty with praxis or planning. Posture relates to postural control, balance, and stability.
Kayla appears to have difficulty modulating touch and noise sensory inputs, it is likely she has over-responsivity (sensitivity) here. There may be some sensitivity with her vestibular system. She also may have difficulties with praxis (dyspraxia). Harry also has difficulty with sensory modulation, this appears to include sound sensitivity but his vestibular and proprioceptive senses seem to be under-responsive. He has difficulties discriminating proprioceptive input and poor postural control. It is common for children to have challenges in more than one section of their sensory processing.
Does Sensory Processing Disorder exist as a diagnosis?
Whilst SPD is referred to by a large number of professionals and therapists it is currently not formally recognised as a standalone diagnosis. It is now formally recognised that children with autism have difficulties with sensory processing, especially with regards to sensory modulation. There are tireless teams of researchers working towards having Sensory Processing Disorder recognised as a diagnosis in its own right. I am hopeful that there will be sufficient evidence next time the diagnostic manuals are revised to have it included.
How can I get help if I think myself or my child has SPD?
The best placed professional to help to identify if your child has any challenges with their sensory processing is an occupational therapist who has additional training in sensory integration.
Where can I find more information on SPD?
- GriffinOT has an online training course which provides more information on sensory processing disorder and how to help.
- The STAR center website includes a lot of useful information and updates on current research.
- The Sensory Integration Global Network (SIGN) also outlines further information and current research on sensory integration.
- This video provides an overview of sensory processing from a child’s perspective.
What’s the difference between Sensory Processing Disorder and Sensory Integration (SI)?
SPD and SI refer to the same theory. A comparison and history of the two can be found here.
References & Other Books
- Biel, L. (2014) Sensory Processing Challenges Effective Clinical Work with Kids and Teens.
- Bilar, D. & Miller, L.J. (2011) No Longer A Secret – Unique Common Sense Strategies for Children with Sensory or Motor Challenges.
- Dunn, W. (2008) Living Sensationally – Understanding Your Senses.
- Kranowitz, C. (2005) The Out of Sync Child.
- Miller, L.J. (2014) Sensational Kids Hope and Help for Children with SPD – Revised.