Sensory process (or sensory integration) is the way in which the central nervous system of the body receives messages from the senses of the body and uses that information to act in an appropriate motor or behavioral responses. Sensory processing disorder (SPD, also known as sensory integration dysfunction) is a condition in which the sensory signals received by the central nervous system do not become organized into an appropriate response. A child who has SPD may find it challenging to process and act appropriately his or her central nervous system receives sensory information which causes problems with carrying out activities of daily living. SPD can cause tremendous challenges for a child if it is not treated or managed appropriately.

Sensory processing disorder may affect only one sense – such as sight or hearing – or it can impact multiple senses and impacts each child in a different way. One child may react strongly to different textures of clothing while another may over-respond to loud sounds. Children with SPD may also have impairments of the joints and muscles, impacting posture and motor skills. Many children who have SPD are not immediately diagnosed with the condition as the disorder can be mistaken for ADHD. While this disorder is commonly diagnosed in childhood, many people reach adulthood without a proper diagnosis and may struggle with the symptoms of the disorder.

Children who have sensory processing disorder are effectively treated by a combination of physical and occupational therapy that focuses upon activities that strengthen a child’s ability to handle sensory stimuli appropriately. Over time, a child will learn to appropriately respond to sensory stimuli so that they are able to behave in a more positive manner in therapy, in school, and at home.

Types of Sensory Processing Disorders

There are certain subtypes of sensory processing disorder that may alter the course of treatment and diagnosis. The subtypes of SPD include:

Sensory Modulation Disorder: Children who have sensory modulation disorder have problems regulating the intensity and nature of responses to sensory input. The responses may be emotional or behavioral, negative responses to stimuli not averse to others, and the problems are exacerbated by stress. Common symptoms include:

  • Withdrawing from light and unexpected touch
  • Gagging and refusal to eat textured foods
  • Dislike of teeth-brushing, hair washing, or nail cutting
  • Avoidance of messy textures such as dirt or lotion
  • Strong preferences to certain types of clothing, including textures and fit
  • Oversensitivity to sounds or visual stimuli

Sensory Discrimination Disorder: Children who have sensory discrimination disorder have problems discerning and assigning proper meaning to qualities of particular sensory stimuli. These children may struggle with recognition and interpretation of characteristics of sensory stimuli, have poor detection of difference or similarities in the stimuli, and often occurs with dyspraxia and poor skill performance. Symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty manipulating an object when out of sight
  • Difficulties following directions
  • Challenges distinguishing between similar sounds
  • Problems finding an image in a cluttered background
  • Uses too much or too little force
  • Poor balance
  • Poor sense of movement speed

Postural-Ocular Disorder: Children with postural-ocular disorder have problems controlling or stabilizing the body during movements or at rest. Muscles may be hypo or hypertonic and joints may be unstable. Poor usage of vision and oculomotor control. Symptoms may include:

  • Poor posture control or strength
  • Poor equilibrium and balance
  • Difficulty isolating head-eye movements
  • Poor tracking of visual stimuli
  • Avoidance of upper extremity weight bearing
  • Discomfort climbing or fear of heights
  • Tires easily
  • Challenges establishing dominant hand (right or left handedness)

Dyspraxia: Children with dyspraxia have a deficit in their abilities to plan, sequence, or execute unfamiliar actions. Motor skills and movement may be awkward, these children may have poor ability to generalize learned skills to apply to other tasks, and may have poor timing, sequencing, and action of motor skills. Symptoms may include:

  • Trouble performing activities of daily living
  • Accident-prone and clumsiness
  • Resists new activities
  • Poor playing skills
  • Poor fine motor coordination
  • Poor articulation

Statistics

While much research is being conducted, current estimates are that a minimum of one in every 20 children in the US have SPD.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Sensory processing disorder may occur with other types of disorders. The most common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Autism
  • Asperger syndrome
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Language disorders
  • Learning disabilities
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Fragile X syndrome

Causes of Sensory Processing Disorder

The precise cause for SPD is still unknown, although researchers are spending much time learning more about the condition. Some of the potential causes for SPD may include:

Genetic: Children born to adults who have autism spectrum disorders may be at higher risk for developing sensory processing disorder. Additionally, children with Asperger syndrome or autism are at a higher risk for developing SPD. Boys are more likely than girls to have SPD.

Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder

Children who have sensory processing disorder cannot properly process the sensory stimuli from the outside world and may have trouble interpreting information from one or more senses. As no two children with SPD have the same type of sensory dysfunction, the symptoms will vary tremendously from child to child and may include:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Withdraw when touched
  • Behavioral problems
  • Difficulties calming oneself after exercise or being upset
  • Refuse to eat certain foods due to the textures of the foods
  • Be hypersensitive to certain fabrics
  • Only wear soft clothes or clothes without tags
  • Dislike dirtying his or her hands
  • Do not engage in creative play
  • Lack variety in play – may watch the same television program over and over
  • Oversensitivity to sounds, especially hair dryers, washing machines, or sirens
  • Be oversensitive to odors – strong or mild
  • Have challenges with certain movements, such as swinging, sliding, or going down stairs
  • Notice or hear background noises that others cannot
  • May harm others during play accidentally
  • Dangerous behaviors

Physical Symptoms:

  • Have odd posture
  • Clumsiness
  • Poor balance
  • Delayed fine motor control, such as handwriting challenges
  • Delayed gross motor development
  • Impairments in sleep, eating, and elimination patterns
  • Be in constant motion
  • Jump, swing, spin excessively
  • Fatigue easily
  • Alternate between constant motion and fatigue
  • Poor coordination
  • May fall often
  • High tolerance to pain

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Decreased ability to interact with peers
  • May stand too closely to others
  • Social isolation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Fearful of crowds
  • Avoidance of standing in large groups
  • Fearful of surprise touch

Effects of Sensory Processing Disorder

As SPD may be undiagnosed, especially in older people, and left untreated for years, the long-term effects of living with SPD can cause significant impairment in their daily lives. Many healthcare professionals are not trained to recognize the symptoms of this disorder and as a result, diagnosis may be delayed for years.

The long-term effects of SPD may include:

  • Trouble maintaining a mainstream job
  • Challenges with interpersonal relationships
  • Inability to find pleasure in recreational activities that overstimulate the senses
  • Depression
  • Underachievement
  • Social isolation
  • Poor self-confidence
  • Decreased friendships
  • Low self-esteem

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