What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensitivity to noise is a symptom of a sensory processing disorder.
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Refusing to wear clothing with an itchy tag, difficulty sitting still, and trouble sleeping might not mean your child is just being difficult. He may be experiencing a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder.

An average of 1 in 20 people is affected by SPD, a condition causes a neurological “traffic jam,” as described by neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD. In essence, a person with SPD can’t process appropriately the information received through the senses--sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste--and this creates a challenge when attempting to perform a myriad daily tasks.

SPD can affect just one of the senses, such as what seems like an overreaction to a light touch or bright light, or it could manifest in multiple senses. SPD can also cause a person to underreact to a sensation. The cause of SPD isn’t completely known, but there are treatments to help minimize its effects.

What Causes SPD?

This question is under much scrutiny by researchers at the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, as well as other research facilities. Early research indicates that SPD could be genetic, though prenatal and birth complications, as well as environmental factors, could play a role.

What Are the Signs of SPD?

This was once called Sensory Integration Disorder, SPD is most commonly diagnosed in children. Quite often, SPD goes hand-in-hand with ADHD, anxiety, or autism. There's controversy among specialists about whether it's a stand alone diagnosis or if is associated with other disorders only.

Keep an eye out for any of these signs, which could indicate SPD. However, keep in mind that some symptoms can be attributed to other causes; therefore, you should always talk to your pediatrician before making any assumptions.

Infants and Toddlers 

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Problems with eating
  • Uncomfortable in clothes or irritable when being dressed
  • Does not play with toys requiring dexterity
  • Slow to respond to pain
  • Does not enjoy cuddling or significant physical touch
  • Bumps into things and has poor balance
  • Little to no babbling or vocalizing
  • Easily startled
  • Delayed in crawling, standing, walking or running


  • Difficulty toilet training
  • Overly sensitive to touch, noise and smells
  • Unaware of being touched until it’s done with force
  • Difficult with fine motor tasks, such as fasteners on clothing
  • In constant motion
  • Hard to calm or difficulty with transitions
  • Hard to understand speech
  • Does not understand verbal instructions

School Age

  • Easily distracted in classroom or fidgety
  • Overwhelmed easily in class or recess
  • Slow to learn new activities
  • Gets stuck on tasks and can’t transition to new task
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Difficulty reading, particularly out loud
  • Lacks speech fluency and stumbled over words

What’s the Treatment for SPD?

If your child is diagnosed with SPD, she’ll most likely being working with an occupational therapist, whose goal it is to help retrain your child’s senses.

The therapists use fun, stimulating activities that affect your young one’s senses without overwhelming them and, eventually, teach the child how to extend what she’s learned in therapy to respond appropriately out in the “real world.”

Treatment can be highly effective. But some people need additional help when they have major life changes, such as going to college, starting a new job or moving.

While not based on scientific research, some people choose alternative therapies such as acupuncture.

Parental Support

Although SPD can be a challenge for both child and parent, it can be managed with the help of a qualified occupational therapist. Parents find techniques such as using tag-free clothing, sound-blocking headphones and sunglasses can help minimize a child’s reactions.


Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation: About SPD

Sensory Therapies and Research: What is SPD?

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