Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
Our bodies are constantly taking in sensory information from the environment. Right now, I see the glare of my computer screen, I can hear the lawnmower next door, I feel the chair underneath me and the weight of my watch on my wrist. I can still work with all this sensory information coming in, because my sensory system has developed to organize the the incoming information and filter out the information that is not relevant to what I am doing. Life for a child or adult with sensory processing (Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)) challenges is very different.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?
Someone experiencing sensory processing challenges will have difficulty with making sense of and regulating sensory information. Simply put, the brain cannot make sense of all the incoming information and is unable to organize this information to help them regulate their responses to the information. Put another way, the highway relaying the messages from one sensory modality, for example the eyes, to the brain may become gridlocked or completely rerouted. This makes the incoming information
Not all senses are affected at the same time – some children may have difficulty with sensory information relating to coordination, balance and movement (the vestibular system). Others have difficulty with understanding their body in space (proprioception) and yet others may be over- or under sensitive to information coming in from the environment such as visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile or taste stimuli.
Being able to identify cues that your child has difficulty regulating their sensory input can help determine the correct course of action to take.
We always recommend that parents consult an occupational therapist trained in sensory processing disorder.
What does it look like?
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) manifests differently in each child, according to the sensory modality that is affected. It is also useful to keep in mind that a child may have sensory processing issues in more than one modality. The below table indicates potential signals that a child may have difficulty with processing sensory information (Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)):
|Visual||• Frequent dizziness/ headaches|
• Scared of movement, e.g. blocks when a ball is thrown towards them
• May attempt to screen out or avoid bright light
• May avoid direct eye contact
|• Stares at moving objects|
• Looks directly into bright lights
• Difficulty focusing on objects that are standing still
• May show excessive head movement when writing
• Seeks visual movement such as spinning, patterns or fans
|Auditory||• Shows distress at sudden loud noises|
• Attempts to avoid everyday sounds such as hair dryer, lawnmower or toilet flushing
• Uncomfortable with high pitched sounds
|• Prefers loud music or sounds|
• Difficulty modulating their speaking volume to an appropriate level
• Appears calmer in the presence of noise or music
• Enjoys loud noises, will make a noise in a quiet setting – seems uncomfortable when it is quiet
|Olfactory||• Gags when certain smells are present|
• Seems to become agitated in the presence of particular smells
• May tell others they “stink”
|• Smells items that are not typically scented|
• Trouble identifying objects by smell, discriminate between safe or dangerous items to smell
• Are prone to smell or ingest dangerous items due to inability to discriminate between safe and dangerous smells
|Tactile||• Refusal to wear certain textures or clothing|
• Easily bothered by clothing tags, seams or tight-fitting clothing
• Appears anxious over light touch
• Seems fearful of large crowds
• Dislikes hair brushing or washing
|• Prefers tight clothing to loose-fitting clothes|
• Always seems to be dirty/messy
• Doesn’t seem to register pain
• Finds it difficult not to touch things
• Tends to put things into their mouths
|Proprioceptive||• Dislikes being touched by others|
• May be a fussy eater
• Can appear lazy/lethargic
• Difficulty with climbing stairs
• Needs to look to complete familiar activities
|• Uses more pressure or force than the activity calls for (e.g. pressing too hard when writing)|
• Prefers tight clothing, may seek pressure from the environment
• Has poor awareness of personal space
|Vestibular||• Fearful of playground equipment such as swings|
• Avoids movement activities
• Scared of elevators
• Strong dislike for being picked up or being in an upside down position
|• Constantly on the move|
• Has difficulty sitting still
• Seems to need to be in constant motion
• Prefers to be upside down having over a chair or couch
• Can appear to be impulsive, risk-taking
Knowing what to look out for will help you identify whether your child is experiencing any sensory modulation difficulties and will enable you to find appropriate guidance to assist them in managing these issues. Untreated, these issues may have adverse effects on learning
How do sensory processing challenges affect learning?
Children who are under-stimulated may engage in behaviours that are deemed “bad” in the school setting, for example, trouble sitting still; bumping into others; appearing distracted; or having meltdowns during crowded or noisy activities at school.
Many of these symptoms look similar to the symptoms of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Some, but not all, learning difficulties may be related to poor sensory regulation – one example is handwriting. A child who has poor proprioception may press too hard when writing. Another child may seem constantly distracted, but has difficulty tolerating the flickering halogen lights overhead.
If sensory issues are not adequately addressed, much of the child’s attentional resources may be spent on modulating the influx of sensory information or seek sensory stimulation if they are hypo-sensitive. This leaves fewer cognitive resources to attend to the class and learn effectively.
What can parents do?
It is important to seek an evaluation if you suspect sensory issues.
It is always a good idea to consult an occupational therapist trained in Sensory Processing Disorder.
Although sensory processing difficulties don’t constitute a diagnosis in themselves, it is important to seek an evaluation if you suspect sensory issues.
It is also helpful to work with the child’s teacher at school to identify aspects of the classroom environment that may contribute to sensory overload – for example, for a child that s easily overstimulated by visual input, halogen lights and colourful pictures on the wall may present a challenge.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a manageable condition and treating it effectively will help your child modulate their input, and allow them to become confident learners.
- Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a deficit in regulating and organizing sensory input
- Symptoms of sensory processing disorder may mimic those of other learning difficulties
- Sensory processing challenges can affect a child’s learning and academic performance
- Dietary and nutrient supplementation guided by a doctor or nutritionist is an avenue to consider for sensory processing disorder.