Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD): Causes & Symptoms

Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder occurs when the brain cannot receive and process sensory input. There is no official medical diagnosis for sensory integration dysfunction, which was formerly called sensory integration disorder.

Those with sensory processing disorders tend to be overly sensitive to their surroundings. They may experience pain or overwhelm at the sound of common sounds. They may chafe at the touch of a shirt.

Those who suffer from sensory processing disorders may also:

  • Be uncoordinated
  • Bump into things
  • Having difficulty locating their limbs in space
  • Being difficult to talk to

Children tend to have sensory processing disorders. However, adults can also suffer from them. Developmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder are associated with sensory processing disorders.

There is no such thing as sensory processing disorder in isolation. Many experts believe that needs to change.

Read: False Memory Disorder

What is sensory processing?

You may indeed have been taught about the five senses in elementary school, but in reality, you have more than five senses.

There are eight main types of sensory processing:

  • Proprioception. The self-awareness that you have about your body is called “internal”. It is what keeps you in proper posture and allows you to control your movements. Additionally, it reveals how you move and occupy space.
  • Vestibular. This term describes the inner ear’s ability to perceive space. This helps keep you balanced and coordinated.
  • Interoception. The ability to feel what is going on inside your body. As a result, you can understand it as what you “feel.” This includes your physical temperature and your feelings.
  • Five senses. Last but not least, there are the five senses: touch, hearing, taste and smell.

The term sensory processing disorder was previously used to describe sensory issues. There is no official recognition of the disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

Many experts and doctors believe sensory issues are components of another condition or disorder, rather than being their own disorder. This is one reason why there is little information about this issue and how best to treat it.

Knowing what is known can help parents, caregivers, and healthcare professionals understand and support their children.

Read: 11 Best Tips to Stop Restless Legs Syndrome


SPD is a disorder that can occur alone or in conjunction with another disorder, such as ADHD. ADHD affects 60 percent of children with SPD symptoms. Several studies conducted by Lucy Jane Miller, Ph.D., director of the Sensory Processing Treatment and Research Center in Denver, Colorado, indicate that more than half of children who were diagnosed as ADHD also had SPD or both.

It’s important to note that their symptoms have some striking parallels, as well as some notable differences. Inattention and fidgetiness are characteristics shared by ADHD and SPD. People with SPD will behave differently if they are relieved of the sensory overload of itchy tags or humming fluorescent bulbs. ADHD patients do not. There is a difference in treatment for ADHD and SPD when they coexist, since they are two different conditions.

Symptoms of sensory processing disorder

Senses like hearing, touch, or taste may be affected by sensory processing disorder. Several senses may be affected as well. It is also possible for people to be overly or under reactive to their difficulties.

There is a spectrum of symptoms associated with a sensory processing disorder.

For instance, some children may vomit or dive under the table when they hear a leaf blower outside the window. Children may cry when they are touched. Some foods can cause them to tremble.

However, others seem immune to external stimuli. Some are insensitive to extreme temperature changes or even pain.

A sensory processing disorder child is often a fussy baby who becomes anxious as they grow. They often have a hard time dealing with change. Sometimes they have meltdowns or have tantrums.

This happens to many children occasionally. Sensory processing disorder can also be diagnosed when the symptoms are severe enough to interfere with normal functioning and stop people from living their daily lives.

Read: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Causes of sensory processing disorder

It is not known what causes sensory processing disorders. However, a study of twins conducted in 2006 discovered that hypersensitivity to light and sound was closely linked to genetics.

Researchers have also demonstrated that when children with sensory processing disorders are simultaneously exposed to light and sound, their brain activity becomes abnormal.

Another experiment showed that children with sensory processing disorders will remain sensitive to the touch of their hand or the sound of a loud noise while other children quickly adapt to the sensation.

Treatment for sensory processing disorder

The condition affects many children, but families find it difficult to receive help.  There is no recognized medical diagnosis for sensory processing disorder at this point.

There is no widely accepted diagnosis for sensory processing problems, but occupational therapists regularly see and treat patients with this condition.

Children are treated according to their needs. However, it generally involves helping children to become better at activities they’re not naturally good at and adapting to things they normally can’t handle.

Sensory integration is one method of treating sensory processing problems. Sensory integration aims to encourage children to respond appropriately and function more normally by providing them with fun, playful challenges.

DIR therapy refers to Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-based therapy. Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Dr. Serena Wieder developed the therapy.

The floor-time method is an important part of this therapy. Parents and children play together for multiple sessions. Usually, 20 minutes is enough time for the play sessions.

It is first requested that parents follow their child’s lead during the playtime sessions, even if the behavior isn’t typical.  The parent will do the same thing if the child rubs the same spot on the floor constantly. Parents can “enter” the world of their children with these actions.

The play sessions are followed by a second phase, in which the parent challenges the child through the sessions. Taking on the challenges with the parent engages the child in a “shared” world, as Greenspan puts it. In addition, the challenges provide the child with opportunities to master important skills including:

  • Relating
  • Communicating
  • Thinking

Session content is personalized for each child. During the second phase of play, the parent must be very energetic if the child does not react to touch or sound. The parent needs to be more soothing if the child overreacts to touch and sound.

Children will benefit from these interactions as well as, DIR therapists believe, get better at handling sensory issues.

Check: Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD)

Are sensory issues associated with another disability?

Most doctors do not consider sensory issues as a separate disorder. However, some people have difficulties processing sensations, sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

Sensory issues are more common in children. Autism is a common diagnosis among these children. Sensory issues are also common among adults on the spectrum.

A few other disorders or conditions that may be associated with sensory issues include:

Some people with sensory issues also experience developmental delays.

The main difference between children with ADHD and those with sensory issues is that children with ADHD are hyperactive for very different reasons.

ADHD sufferers may find it difficult to concentrate or stay still. Some people with sensory issues find it difficult to sit still because of their desire to interact with the world around them, or because they are bothered by their environment.

Read: Capgras Syndrome

Is there hope for kids who have sensory issues?

It is not possible to cure sensory issues. Some children experience fewer problems with age, while others simply learn how to cope.

Doctors sometimes treat sensory issues in conjunction with the overall treatment for their diagnosed conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder or ADHD.

Validated treatment options may be limited if your child has difficulty processing what they perceive without any other underlying medical conditions.

Seeing as it’s not a recognized mental illness, not everyone is willing to assume or try treatments that aren’t reliably proven to change behavior.

Read: Body Integrity Identity Disorder

Living with sensory processing issues

It can be difficult to live with SPD. There is a sense of loneliness that can accompany parenting a child with SPD. They may choose not to take their child out in public if they are concerned about sensory overload. There may also be times when parents feel that they have to explain the behavior of their child to others.

The feelings of isolation may also apply to adults with SPD. It is possible for them to become overwhelmed with sensory information and refuse to leave the house. Even going to work or to the store can be challenging.

Occupational therapists are the best resource for adults who are struggling with SPD. It may be possible for the therapist to teach them new ways of reacting to stimuli. Consequently, certain situations may require them to change their behavior. It may improve your lifestyle in the long run.

It is possible for SPD to never go away even after therapy or ageing. There are times when symptoms are triggered by major life events or stress.

To summarize

You can learn a lot about the world around you from your senses, from how it smells to where you are in it.

They may show signs of sensory issues if they are having trouble processing those sensory inputs. Some of these may include being unsteady or having trouble coordinating one’s movements, screaming when someone wants attention or jumping up and down frequently.

Children and adults who suffer from sensory issues may be helped by therapies such as occupational therapy to cope with their surroundings. Therapy is aimed at reducing overreactions and finding healthy outlets for these sensory experiences.