What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

“Turn on the radio, then turn it up as loud as it will go. Until it hurts your ears. Put 150 watt light bulbs in every lamp in one room, and turn them all on. Put on a pair of pants backwards and somebody else’s shoes that are too small. Shove a stiff hairbrush down the back of your shirt, so it is poking at you, and driving you crazy. Now clean the kitty litter, change the dirty baby diaper, or scoop up the dog mess in the yard, and sit it square in the middle of the table, so it wafts. Sit at your table with a food you absolutely gag on, in a chair with one leg missing. Now, snack on that food you hate. How many seconds can you stand the music that loud? The lights so bright? Those shoes so tight? And what is that smell!? Imagine if you cannot stop this. You cannot have a moment, ever, without feeling like you do right now. Now imagine you are just a little kid, who does not know that it isn’t like this for every body. Now, imagine you are an adult who has no idea why they feel this way.”

–M. Morris


  • Hand-in-Ball-PitSensory processing disorder was previously known as sensory integration dysfunction (SID) initially researched and defined by Jean Ayres, PhD, Pediatric Occupational Therapist.
  • As with other developmental disorders, the exact cause is not yet known, however research suggests the causes of SPD are most probably more biological than environmental, although environmental and medical influences certainly impact sensory processing in all of us, inclusive of food allergies, gastroesphogeal reflux, Lyme Disease, trauma, etc.
  • When sensory information is not processed efficiently, one struggles to perceive, organize and interpret countless sensations that come into the nervous system, making it difficult to adapt, sometimes with specific functional tasks, sometimes day by day and sometimes even moment by moment.
  • 1 in every 6 children experiences sensory symptoms that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life functions (Ben-Sasson, Carter, Briggs-Gowen, 2009).
  • Like other disorders, SPD occurs on a spectrum and differs with each and every individual depending on the senses involved and whether the struggles are related to sensory modulation (responsivity), sensory discrimination (skill) and/or motor-planning (sequencing). While most of us have occasional difficulties processing sensory information, for children and adults with SPD, these difficulties are chronic, and they disrupt everyday life. Sensory processing difficulties can range from mild (in children with regulatory disorders) to severe (in some children with autism).
  • Sensory Processing Disorder is real, even though it is “hidden”. Despite the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) not including SPD as a disorder, recent ground-breaking research provides the first biologic evidence that SPD is a distinct disorder (Dr. Elisa Marco, MD, Dr, Julia Owen, PhD, Dr. Mukherjee, PhD). This study and more evidence-based studies are forthcoming, and support that SPD is a valid disorder, and must be reconsidered as such. The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation has been studying SPD for over 30 years and supports continued research of SPD. These researchers, physicians, and scientists continue to provide physiological, neurological, psychological, etiological, familial and other data about SPD.
  • Sensory Processing Disorder has unique sensory symptoms that are not explained by other known disorders, specifically sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems that are not functioning typically in children with SPD. This is supported by recent research that demonstrates brain differences in those with SPD.
  • SPD often looks like other disorders and frequently results in misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment for children and adults. Even when parents do obtain a diagnosis and referral to appropriate therapy, many third-party payers do not cover the cost of the treatment.
  • Pediatricians may or may not acknowledge parental concerns about sensory processing, and it is therefore common for underlying sensory difficulties to be disregarded. Rather than acknowledging primary sensory processing struggles, secondary labels are frequently given, inclusive of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), attention deficit disorder (ADHD), and/or anxiety disorder (AD).
  • Red flags for sensory processing difficulties may include some or all of the following:
    • Under responsive and/or over responsive behaviors.
    • Sensory-avoiding and/or sensory-seeking behaviors.
    • Overly active/unsafe/extreme risk-taker.
    • Overly cautious and unwilling to take risks.
    • Poor body-in-space awareness and/or “loose” muscles.
    • Gets dizzy easily/never gets dizzy.
    • Difficulty with balance activities, core strength and/or postural control.
    • Gross-motor incoordination: jumping, skipping, playground activities.
    • Fine-motor incoordination: manipulating, cutting, gluing, coloring.
    • Visual-motor struggles: drawing, coloring, and hand writing.
    • Overly sensitive to clothing and hygiene activities.
    • Touch-craving behaviors/touches others too hard.
    • Diminished awareness of touch and/or pain.
    • Oral-motor difficulties/picky eater
    • Protective of loud sounds/noises; overwhelmed in busy environments
    • Poor control of eye movement and diminished eye contact
    • Struggles with visual-perceptual tasks: puzzles, constructional toys, letters and numbers.
    • Social-emotional difficulties: rigidity, transitions, resistive, challenging, aggressive, withdrawn, social reciprocity, and social pragmatics.
    • Self-regulatory difficulties: inattention, impulsive, high activity level, decreased frustration tolerance, and disorganization.
  • Most children and adults with SPD do not have cognitive delays and many are intellectually gifted. They are simply neurologically wired to be ‘sensational’!

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