Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: From Symptoms to Solutions

Jay Getten | Jan 13, 2024 | 9 min read


Imagine living in a world where the gentlest touch feels like sandpaper against your skin, or where a whisper sounds like a shout. This is the daily reality for many individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a complex neurological condition that affects how the brain processes sensory information. In this blog post, we'll delve into the intricacies of SPD, exploring its symptoms, impact, and the pathways to effective management.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

SPD occurs when sensory signals don't get organized into appropriate responses. This can lead to a spectrum of challenges, from being overwhelmed by sensory input to seeking out intense sensory experiences. Understanding SPD is crucial, as it affects not just one's perception but also how one interacts with the world.

Prevalence and Co-Occurring Conditions

SPD is more common than many realize, affecting 5-15% of children and often co-occurring with conditions like autism, ADHD, and anxiety disorders. It's not exclusive to children, though; adults too can experience SPD, often with symptoms that have persisted since childhood.

Recognizing the Signs of SPD

Recognizing the signs of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is the first step towards getting appropriate help. These signs can vary widely depending on the individual's age and the type of sensory issues they experience.

In Children:

  • Behavioral Indicators: Look for signs like extreme reactions to sensory stimuli (e.g., loud noises, bright lights), difficulty with motor tasks like buttoning shirts or using scissors, and either a high tolerance for pain or an extreme aversion to it.
  • Social and Emotional Signs: Children with SPD might have difficulty playing with others, appear withdrawn or overly aggressive, or have unexpected emotional outbursts. They might also show a strong preference for or resistance to certain foods based on texture.

In Adults:

  • Sensory Sensitivities: Adults with SPD may avoid certain textures, sounds, or lights. They might have specific clothing preferences (e.g., only wearing soft fabrics) and may be overwhelmed by busy environments like shopping centers or loud social gatherings.
  • Impact on Daily Life: Look for signs like difficulty in maintaining relationships, challenges in work environments, or a general feeling of being constantly overwhelmed by sensory information.

Assessment and Diagnosis

  • Standardized Assessments: Tools like the Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT) or the Sensory Profile are often used. These assessments evaluate how individuals respond to sensory stimuli and can help identify specific sensory processing issues.
  • Observational Assessments: Clinicians may also rely on observations of the individual's responses to sensory stimuli in various settings.

Professional Involvement:

  • Role of Occupational Therapists: Occupational therapists often play a key role in assessing and diagnosing SPD. They have specialized training in sensory integration therapy and can provide valuable insights into an individual's sensory processing patterns.
  • Collaboration with Other Professionals: In some cases, collaboration with psychologists, pediatricians, or neurologists may be necessary to rule out other conditions and to get a comprehensive understanding of the individual's challenges.

Impact on Daily Life and Learning

Living with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) means navigating a world that often feels overwhelming or underwhelming in terms of sensory experiences. For children and adults with SPD, everyday environments can present a series of challenges that impact learning, social interactions, and even basic daily routines.

In Educational Settings:

  • Classroom Challenges: For a child with SPD, a typical classroom can be a sensory minefield. The hum of fluorescent lights, the rustle of papers, or the buzz of a group activity can be distracting or even distressing. This sensory overload can lead to difficulties in concentrating, following instructions, and participating in class activities.
  • Social Struggles: Social interactions in school settings can be particularly challenging. Children with SPD might find physical contact with peers during playtime uncomfortable or may struggle to engage in group activities due to sensory sensitivities, leading to social isolation or misunderstanding by peers.
  • Accommodations and Strategies: Successful management involves tailored strategies such as sensory breaks, use of noise-canceling headphones, or seating arrangements that minimize overstimulation. Teachers and parents can collaborate to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan that includes specific accommodations to support the child’s learning and social needs.

In Daily Activities:

  • Routine Tasks: Routine tasks like grooming, dressing, or eating can be challenging. A child might resist brushing their teeth due to the texture of the toothbrush, or an adult might find the sensation of certain fabrics unbearable.
  • Navigating Public Spaces: Public spaces like supermarkets or malls can be overwhelming due to the bombardment of sounds, sights, and smells. This can lead to avoidance of such spaces or significant distress when navigating them.

Treatment and Management

Effective treatment and management of SPD are crucial for improving the quality of life for those affected.

Therapeutic Approaches:

  • Sensory Integration Therapy: This therapy, often conducted by occupational therapists, involves activities that help the individual respond more effectively to sensory stimuli. It can include play-based activities for children or structured tasks for adults.
  • Environmental Modifications: Making changes to the individual's environment to reduce sensory overload can be helpful. This might include using noise-canceling headphones, creating quiet spaces, or using specific lighting.

Support Strategies:

  • Sensory Diets: Personalized activities scheduled throughout the day to help the individual manage their sensory processing needs. These activities are tailored to provide the right amount of sensory input to help the individual stay focused and organized.
  • Education and Advocacy: Educating families, schools, and workplaces about SPD is vital. Advocacy for accommodation and understanding can make a significant difference in the individual's ability to function and thrive.

Living with SPD

Living with SPD is a journey of constant adaptation. Individuals with SPD and their families often develop unique strategies to cope with the sensory challenges they face.

Personal Experiences:

  • Emotional Impact: The constant sensory challenges can lead to feelings of frustration, anxiety, and isolation. It’s not uncommon for individuals with SPD to experience mood swings, anxiety, or depression because of their sensory experiences.
  • Seeking Comfort: Many individuals with SPD find comfort in certain sensory experiences or routines. This might include specific calming activities, like rocking or listening to certain types of music, that provide a sense of security and predictability.

Family Dynamics:

  • Understanding and Support: Families play a crucial role in providing support. This involves understanding the individual’s sensory needs, advocating for them in educational and social settings, and creating a home environment that accommodates their sensory preferences.
  • Challenges and Rewards: Families often face challenges in public understanding and acceptance of SPD. However, there are also rewards in seeing the individual thrive with appropriate support and in celebrating their unique way of experiencing the world.

The Future of SPD Understanding and Support

Research into SPD is ongoing, with studies exploring potential biomarkers and neuroimaging techniques. Increased awareness and research are essential for better diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. Advocacy and support networks play a crucial role in providing resources and community for those affected.


SPD is a complex but manageable condition. With increased understanding and support, individuals with SPD can navigate their sensory world more effectively. As we continue to learn and advocate, we open doors to more effective treatments and a better quality of life for those affected by SPD.

Annotated Bibliography:

  • Franciscan Health. (2019, December 19). Sensory Processing And School Success.

    • This article from Franciscan Health discusses the impact of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) on school-aged children. It highlights how SPD, while not a learning disorder, can significantly challenge a child's ability to succeed in school due to difficulties in sensory processing. The article is insightful for understanding the educational implications of SPD and the need for tailored strategies in school environments.
  • Hetherington, C. (2023, March 14). Exploring the Symptoms and Consequences of Sensory Processing Disorder. HealthNews.

    • Chelsea Hetherington, PhD, provides a comprehensive overview of SPD, discussing its wide-ranging symptoms, prevalence, and impact on daily life for individuals of all ages. The article is particularly valuable for its detailed description of how SPD affects both children and adults, and its emphasis on the condition's prevalence in individuals with other disorders such as autism and ADHD.
  • Galiana-Simal, A., Vela-Romero, M., Romero-Vela, V. M., Oliver-Tercero, N., García-Olmo, V., Benito-Castellanos, P. J., Muñoz-Martinez, V., & Beato-Fernandez, L. (2020). Sensory processing disorder: Key points of a frequent alteration in neurodevelopmental disorders. Cogent Medicine, 7(1), 1736829.

    • This scholarly article offers an in-depth review of SPD, covering its definition, classification, assessment tools, prevalence, related factors, comorbidity, and treatment. It provides a comprehensive academic perspective on SPD, particularly in the context of neurodevelopmental disorders, and discusses the importance of awareness, diagnosis, and treatment.
  • FamilyDoctor.org. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

    • This article provides an overview of SPD, discussing its causes, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. It offers a general understanding of SPD and its management, making it a valuable resource for individuals and families seeking basic information about the disorder. The focus on practical aspects of living with SPD and treatment options makes it a helpful guide for everyday management.

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