Sensory Processing Disorder

Pioneering Occupational Therapist and Neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.

Sensory Processing Disorder also known as “Sensory Integration Dysfunction “ is a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses. A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively.


Sensory Processing Disorders Classification:

  • Sensory modulation disorder (SMD) consists of over-responding, or under-responding to sensory stimuli or seeking sensory stimulation. Sensory modulation refers to a complex central nervous system process by which neural messages that convey information about the intensity, frequency, duration, complexity, and novelty of sensory stimuli are adjusted. Subtypes are over-responsivity, under-responsivity and sensory craving (seeking) This group may include a fearful and/or anxious pattern, negative and/or stubborn behaviors, self-absorbed behaviors that are difficult to engage or creative or actively seeking sensation.
  • Sensory-based motor disorder (SBMD) shows motor output that is disorganized as a result of incorrect processing of sensory information affecting postural control challenges, resulting in postural disorder, and/or developmental coordination disorder.
  • Sensory discrimination disorder (SDD), or incorrect processing of sensory information. Incorrect processing of visual or auditoryinput, for example, may be seen in inattentiveness, disorganization, and poor school performance. Subtypes are: visual, auditory, tactile, taste/smell, position/movement.


 Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms may vary according to the disorder’s type and sub type present. SPD can affect one sense or multiple senses. While many people can present one or two symptoms, Sensory Processing Disorder has to have a clear functional impact on the person’s life.

People suffering from over-responsively might:

  • Dislike textures such as those found in fabrics, foods, grooming products or other materials found in daily living, to which most people would not react. This dislike interferes with normal function.
  • Avoid crowds and noisy places
  • Motion sickness (not related to other medical explanations)
  • Refuse normal skin contact interactions (kissing, cuddling or hugging) due to negative experience of touch sensation (not to be confused with shyness or social difficulties)
  • Feel seriously discomforted, sick or threatened by normal sounds, lights, movements, smells, tastes, or even inner sensations such as heartbeat.
  • Be picky eaters
  • Have sleep disorders (waking up to minor sounds, problems getting sleep because of sensory overload)
  • Find it difficult to self calm, feel constantly under stress

People suffering from under-responsivity:

  • Show extreme difficulties waking up
  • Appear underactive and slow
  • Be unaware of pain and/or other people
  • Might appear deaf even when auditory function has been tested
  • Child might be difficult being toilet trained, unaware of being wet or soiled

People suffering from sensory craving might:

  • Fidget excessively
  • Seek or make loud, disturbing noises
  • Climb, jump and crash constantly
  • Seek “extreme” sensations
  • Suck on or bite clothing, fingers, pencils, etc.
  • Appear impulsive

People suffering from sensory motor based problems might:

  • Appear slow and uncoordinated
  • Feel clumsy, slow, poor motor skills or handwriting
  • Have poor posture
  • Children might be delayed in crawling, standing, walking or running.
  • Become verbose to avoid motor tasks

People suffering from sensory discrimination problems might:

  • Drop things constantly
  • Have poor handwriting
  • Difficulty dressing and eating
  • Use inappropriate force to handle objects

Other signs and symptoms:

  • Poorly integrated balance and righting reflexes
  • Low muscle tone patterns in extensor versus gravity and flexor versus gravity muscle systems
  • Poor core tone
  • Low postural control
  • Poor nystagmus
  • Presence of non integrated reflexes such as ATNR
  • Jerky eye tracking
  • Poor tactile astereognosis
  • Inadequate motor, ideational or constructional praxis
  • Difficulties with planning movement using feedback information
  • Difficulties with planning movement using feed forward information
  • Poor motor coordination


How Sensory Processing Disorder is treated

Most children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are just as intelligent as their peers. Many are intellectually gifted. Their brains are simply wired differently. They need to be taught in ways that are adapted to how they process information, and they need leisure activities that suit their own sensory processing needs.

Once children with Sensory Processing Disorder have been accurately diagnosed, they benefit from a treatment program of occupational therapy (OT) with a sensory integration (SI) approach. When appropriate and applied by a well-trained clinician, listening therapy (such as Integrated Listening Systems) or other complementary therapies may be combined effectively with OT-SI.

Occupational therapy with a sensory integration approach typically takes place in a sensory-rich environment sometimes called the “OT gym.” During OT sessions, the therapist guides the child through fun activities that are subtly structured so the child is constantly challenged but always successful.

The goal of Occupational Therapy is to foster appropriate responses to sensation in an active, meaningful, and fun way so the child is able to behave in a more functional manner. Over time, the appropriate responses generalize to the environment beyond the clinic including home, school, and the larger community. Effective occupational therapy thus enables children with SPD to take part in the normal activities of childhood, such as playing with friends, enjoying school, eating, dressing, and sleeping.

Ideally, occupational therapy for SPD is family-centered. Parents are involved and work with the therapist to learn more about their child’s sensory challenges and methods for engaging in therapeutic activities (sometimes called a “sensory diet)” at home and elsewhere.

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