Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD): Signs, Symptoms and Help
Ask parents of kids with learning and behavioral disorders if their children experience problems with sensory processing and many of them will answer with a resounding "yes". While it is widely accepted that most children with Autism Spectrum Disorders have trouble integrating sensory input. However, fact that children who aren’t on the spectrum also experience these issues to varying degrees is now being examined more closely by the medical community.
What is Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD)?
Also called Sensory Integration Dysfunction, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a disorder in which the brain cannot properly synthesize multisensory information. It interferes with the person’s ability to process and act upon information received from their environment.1 Those with SPD have difficulty recognizing and interpreting what they see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.2 Often, the sensory stimuli may seem either overwhelming or bland and indistinct. However, the sensations can also become confused, where stroking velvet may taste salty, or the color purple sounds like rain.3
When you struggle to make sense of the sights, smells, and sounds around you, it can feel like you are under assault.4 The stimuli may feel overwhelming, leaving you powerless to proceed.5 Conversely, you might feel isolated, somehow removed from the world and others, unable to experience what others see, hear, and smell. SPD is often confused with ADHD, but while the two can coexist6, they are different conditions requiring different approaches.
Did you know that 1 in 6 children experience sensory symptoms that interfere with everyday functioning? While all children can seem quirky or particular about their likes and dislikes, children with Sensory Processing Disorder will be so severely affected by their sensory preferences that it interferes with their normal, everyday functioning.
How are sensory issues defined?
Sensory Processing Disorder can affect one sense or several. In addition to affecting sight, sounds, touch, smell, and taste, SPD can also affect the internal senses of proprioception, the vestibular system, and interoception.7 There are two main types of sensory processing disorders that children and adults experience:
hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) to sensory stimuli or
hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to sensory stimuli.
If someone is affected by hypersensitivity, they may have extreme or fearful responses to specific textures, sounds, light, smells, or tastes that overwhelm them. Conversely, those with hyposensitivity may seem fearless, inappropriately touching people and/or objects and putting themselves in dangerous situations due to their under-reaction to pain.
Signs and Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder
It can be challenging to parent a child with Sensory Processing Disorder. The child will often act out in certain ways, like screaming when their face gets wet, refusing to wear certain clothes, or racing around crashing into things. These behaviors are bewildering until you understand that the child is struggling to make sense of the chaos and confusion their senses report.8
There are many sensory processing disorder symptoms. They typically fall into hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity. However, it is common for the same child to display some signs of over-responsiveness to certain stimuli while showing sensory-seeking behaviors with others.9
Signs of SPD hypersensitivities (over-responsiveness):
SPD hypersensitivity turns every whisper into a shout. It magnifies sensations often to a terrifying degree. Some common symptoms include:
Extreme response to or fear of sudden, high-pitched, loud, or metallic noises (flushing toilets, clanking silverware, etc.)
May notice or be distracted by background noises that others don’t seem to hear
Fearful of surprise touches
A low pain threshold
Avoids hugs and cuddling even with familiar adults
Seems fearful of crowds
Frequently covers ears or eyes
Avoids standing in close proximity to others
Doesn’t enjoy a game of tag
Very picky with food, gagging with certain textures
Overly fearful of swings and playground equipment
Extremely fearful of climbing or falling, even when there is no real danger
Has poor balance and may fall often
Signs of SPD hyposensitivities (under-responsiveness):
SPD hyposensitivity grays out the brightest colors, making sensations terribly bland and difficult to distinguish. Common symptoms include:
A constant need to touch people or textures, even when it’s inappropriate to do so
Doesn’t understand personal space when peers understand it
Clumsy and uncoordinated movements
Extremely high pain tolerance
Often harms other children and/or pets when playing (i.e. doesn't understand his or her own strength)
Constantly bumps into walls Gives bear hugs
May be very fidgety and unable to sit still
Enjoys movement-based play like spinning, jumping, etc.
Seems to be a "thrill seeker" and can be dangerous at times
Crashes into other people or objects
Frequently rocks or sways
How can you help a child with sensory processing disorder?
If your child struggles with sensory processing, Brain Balance can help. The Brain Balance Program® offers a non-medical, whole-child approach through physical development, cognitive exercises, sensory engagement, and nutritional guidance. You and your child will have a customized plan developed that targets the specific areas your child needs to improve their quality of life. With a dedicated coach and access to a nutrition coach, families have the support they need to find a better path forward. Families don’t need to struggle. There are ways to help children with SPD process sensory input and improve their everyday functioning. You can learn more through our recorded webinar "Sensory Processing Struggles: What's Happening in the Brain".