Jun 22, 2013

What Exactly is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder is a term that is becoming more common among parents, teachers and childcare providers. A diagnosis that occurs with an Occupational Therapist, this disorder was once called Sensory Integration Dysfunction. Although common among children under the Autistic Spectrum, some children can be diagnosed solely with Sensory Processing Disorder. Regardless of any diagnosis, learning of the term and its symptoms can help parents and educators understand the way individual brains are wired to deal with the sensory inputs we receive each day.  

Sensory Integration Dysfunction was first developed in the 1970s by A. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and neuroscientist. As stated on the SPD Foundation website, she describes it as a "neurological traffic jam that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly." All of our information about the world arrives to us through our senses. We experience life through sensory input, and everyone is on a sensory spectrum. We adjust and regulate ourselves to maintain balance, otherwise known as an optimal level of arousal. We can all think of circumstances in our daily living where we adjust our behavior due to sensory input sensitivities. For example, if someone has a migraine, she might find that she has an increased sensitivity to light and noise, and manage that by going into a dark room alone. Those who are diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder have a brain that is wired differently, affecting their sensory input process and creating a disorganization.These individuals will experience over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity throughout their day. So, for example, a child might be extremely reluctant to put on a particular type of sock due to the tactile feeling of it. To the child, the sock fabric might feel like pins and needles, whereas to the rest of us, it is simply a sock.

Our Five Senses and More

We are all familiar with the five senses of touch, smell, sight, sound and taste, but in addition, there are two other senses we do not hear about, which are very crucial when discussing Sensory Processing Disorder. The first one is our vestibular sense. Lenora Delaney, an Occupational Therapist describes it as a sense which, "provides information about where the head and body are in space in relation to the earth's surface." In addition, this sense tells our body about the direction and speed of our body's movement. So, if we were on something like a roller coaster or speedboat with our eyes closed, we would feel our bodies moving fast.

The second sense is called our proprioceptive sense, which is when our muscles and joints tell our brain about our body's position and what our body parts are doing. This sense allows us to skillfully comb our hair and eat with a spoon. So, if there is a disorganization in how the brain receives information with motor planning, it will affect many areas of a child's life, turning simple tasks into extreme challenges, such as doing up a button, riding a bike, or using a pencil to name just a few.

Each Child is Different

For every one of us, how we regulate and manoeuvre through our day of sensory input will differ, each day and throughout the day, depending on the experiences we are participating in, how we feel inside and our individuality. How one person might handle the sensation of focusing on a task in a noisy room might be different than another person. Similarly, if one person is very hungry he or she might not be able to focus at all. Those children who are diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder not only have disorganization with sensory input, but they will also differ in how it affects them daily and throughout their day. In addition, the diagnosis might only affect one or two senses in one person, whereas another might have challenges with all their senses. Regardless, a young child will find a way to deal with, or communicate through behavior, and if we are not aware of the sensory challenges going on inside, we may not understand why a child is having such difficulty or challenging behavior over something the rest of us would have no reaction to. A child might scream when you comb her hair, if she hears a vacuum or if she is on a swing. These behaviors are the child's way of avoiding the uncomfortable situation for which she is overly sensitive. On the other side, a child might seek sensory stimulation, and twirl around in circles or crash himself into objects due to being under responsive. Over time, a child will develop strategies to self regulate.

Sensory Processing Disorder: the Emotional Impact

When children are struggling with motor coordination, learning and other abilities necessary for childhood accomplishments and milestones, it can begin to affect their self esteem. Unfortunately, these children may develop emotional and social challenges on top of everything else. But, when a child is diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder through an Occupational Therapist, a treatment program occurs. More importantly, when there is an understanding from the support network in a child's life about his or her daily challenges, it helps the child profusely. We all vary in our life experiences due to our senses. With careful observation and understanding, we can determine whether a child's behavior might be due to a sensory sensitivity. With that knowledge, a parent, teacher or caregiver can help a child through the challenge.


Delaney, Lenora. Sensory Processing Disorder. Early Childhood Newsletter. (2012). Vancouver Coastal Health.

SPD Foundation
About SPD. Revised May, 2013.
Sensory Processing Disorder. SPD Resource Center. Accessed 2012


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