What You Need to Know About Sensory Processing & SPD

What You Need to Know About Sensory Processing & SPD

This post was reviewed by Carola d'Emery, PT, PhD.

When a child has a sensory processing disorder, day-to-day living can be challenging for the whole family. In this post, we discuss what sensory processing is, what sensory processing disorder (SPD) is, and what to look for when trying to determine if your child has SPD. 


What is Sensory Processing?

Sensory processing is the neurological mechanism that allows for the receipt and decoding of messages sent from our eight senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, balance, position in space, and internal organ signals) to the brain. 

Each one of us processes these signals in a different manner. The meaning of each signal and the way we respond changes as we age and gain different experiences. Our created responses to this information is what we manifest as behavior.

Behavior is what the rest of the world perceives from us, and depending on how appropriate the behavior is to the situation at hand, we can be identified as well-regulated or dis-regulated.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing disorder (SPD), also known as sensory integration disorder, is a condition which changes the brain’s ability to properly interpret messages sent from the body’s senses. This results in hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) or hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness). Sensory processing disorder is usually diagnosed in childhood but can be found in adults.

Sensitivity to clothing, sounds, open spaces, and other aspects of the environment, is a common result of sensory processing disorder, as is clumsiness. 

Types of Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorders have multiple manifestations, including:

  • Avoiding sensations
  • Seeking sensations
  • Being highly sensation-sensitive
  • Lacking spatial awareness
  • Lacking motor control


What are the Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder? 

Sensory processing disorder in children and toddlers can present in many ways. Here are some patterns to be aware of when questioning whether your child might have SPD:

  • High sensitivity/being overwhelmed by textures, sounds, flavors, or smells (including foods, clothing, and objects)
  • Low response to sounds or sensations, like temperature
  • Over- or under-developed pain response
  • Difficulty controlling movements
  • Difficulty with body awareness; clumsiness
  • Hyperactivity

As you can see, sensory processing disorder symptoms often include over- or under-sensitivity to one’s environment.

Causes of Sensory Processing Disorder 

We don’t yet know what causes SPD; genetic elements are being explored. 

Sensory Processing Disorder vs. Autism

Sensory processing disorder and autism are not the same, but they can both occur in the same individual. SPD involves hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to elements in one’s environment, which changes behavior; autism encompasses behavioral changes but can also include delays in communication and social, emotional, and cognitive competencies.

Sensory Processing Disorder Testing 

If you believe your child has symptoms of SPD, contact your pediatrician. There are tests which will assess your child’s sensory processing abilities. There are also evaluations that could aid in diagnosis, such as a speech assessment, a physical therapy evaluation, and a psychological evaluation. 

Occupational Therapy for Sensory Processing Disorder 

If your child is diagnosed with SPD, you could be referred to an occupational therapist who is trained in managing sensory processing disorders. Occupational therapy will provide your child with a personalized treatment plan and sensory processing support, but there are other pediatric practitioners, such as speech pathologists and physical therapists, who also specialize in managing sensory processing disorder.

Sensory Processing Disorder Treatment 

Treatment for sensory processing disorder involves training and retraining a child’s senses. Your child will have an opportunity to strengthen and develop responses in a controlled environment. If clumsiness and body awareness are among your child’s symptoms, motor skill practice and therapy could also be part of the treatment plan.  

If you have more questions about sensory processing disorder, or to schedule an appointment with a sensory-trained occupational therapist, feel free to contact us


Sunny Days

Sunny Days is one of the nation's leading early intervention and autism services providers, serving children with developmental needs in New York, Oklahoma, California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania ,and Delaware. Founded in 1994, it currently has over 2,000 active practitioners. In the past two years, Sunny Days has provided well in excess of 1,000,000 individual sessions. Sunny Days was founded by two healthcare professionals — Joyce Salzberg, LCSW and Donna Maher, RN — whose passion for quality healthcare is core to its mission. 

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