Sensory Processing Disorder, formerly known as Sensory Integration Disorder, is a condition where the brain has difficulty receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Sensory Processing Disorder is often a secondary diagnosis to things such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder).
I get a lot of questions from parents and educators about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). I used those questions to create this resource where I give a very abbreviated version of an answer to the most common questions I hear and then provide a link to an article that goes into more detail. This way, you can use this as a guide to be able to go in depth on the questions you have and to get an overview on the rest.
If you suspect that your child or student has SPD, I suggest speaking to their paediatrician or taking them to see an occupational therapists. Occupational therapists (OTs) really are the front line when it comes to sensory processing issues.
What are the signs of Sensory Processing Disorder?
If you’re wondering whether or not your child has Sensory Processing Disorder, you will want to be looking out for clues that indicate that this is an issue. Keep in mind that because a child can be hypersensitive to some things and hyposensitive to others, no two kids will present with exactly the same symptoms of SPD.
Some of the things to be on the lookout for can include:
- does not like having hair combed
- complains about tags or seams in socks or clothing
- picky eater
- enjoys the feeling of being dizzy or doesn’t seem to get dizzy
- covers ears for loud noise
- takes physical risks
- constantly touching things or others
- avoids certain textures…
Read more about the signs and symptoms in Does My Child Have Sensory Processing Disorder?
The 8 Sensory Systems
There are actually 8 sensory systems in the body. You may be familiar with the 5 senses, but may be surprised to discover that there are 8.
- Visual (Sight)
- Tactile (Touch)
- Auditory (Sound)
- Gustatory (Oral and Taste)
- Olfactory (Smell)
- Proprioception (perception of the position and movement of the body)
- Vestibular (sense of balance and spatial orientation)
- Interoception (perception of the body’s internal signals)
When you’re first learning about this, it can be overwhelming. There is a new vocabulary to master (hello vestibular!), potentially new professionals to involve, and a new mindset shift to acquire.
Take it one step at a time. Solving sensory challenges won’t happen overnight, but small things can make a big difference to your child’s quality of life.
Patterns of Sensory Processing
We all process sensory input differently. Some may be hyposensitive while others may be hypersensitive.
There are 4 patterns of sensory processing.
- sensation seeking
- sensation avoiding
- sensory sensitivity
- low registration
The tricky thing about this is that your child can have a combination of these patterns. For example, one of my daughters is a sensory seeker when it comes to vestibular and tactile but a sensory avoider for auditory.
This can take some detective work on your part, but it will be worth it once you’re able to better understand your child.
What is sensory overload?
Sensory input is constantly coming at us in many forms. Sensory overload can occur in anyone but those with Sensory Processing Disorder are particularly prone to it. It occurs when a child is unable to process, organize, and respond to all the sensory stimuli coming at them. If it is not adequately handled, it will quickly lead to a meltdown or negative behaviours.
Read about the signs of sensory overload and what to do to prevent it.
How can I better understand Sensory Processing and explain it to others?
One of the things that parents who are raising kids with sensory issues often complain about is that others just don’t understand. If you are struggling to explain sensory processing to others (and have them understand that this is a real thing) or if you are looking for practical solutions to everyday sensory struggles with clothing, behaviour, hair combing, sleep, sitting, eating, or playing, Sensory Processing Explained: a Handbook for Parents and Educators has everything you’re looking for.
This book contains all the information you need to understand sensory processing and to actually be able to implement strategies that work at home or in the classroom.
What is a sensory meltdown?
A sensory meltdown is not the same as a tantrum, though to the casual onlooker, they may look similar. A sensory meltdown is not designed to get attention or for a child to “get their way”. They are not much fun for the child or for the parent. This is particularly true if they happen in public.
Learn the causes of a sensory meltdown, what to do when they happen, how to recognize them, and how to prevent them from happening in the first place by clicking these words.
Is it sensory or is it behaviour?
Parents and teachers often have a hard time differentiating between a child’s responses being sensory or behaviour related. I really like this 5 part series over on Growing Hands-On Kids that explores this in depth. It gives great insight on this and takes some of the mystery out of this complex question.
When working with or parenting children with SPD, it’s also helpful to understand how each of the sensory systems affect a child’s behaviour. This allows you to see behaviours in a new light and have increased understanding.
What Does Behaviour Have to do with Sensory Systems?
How do I manage everyday sensory challenges?
Parents in particular ask often for suggestions for helping their kids with the everyday challenges that sensory issues can create. These challenges include such things as clothing, sleep, toilets, going to the store or other public places, hair combing or cutting, chewing on items that are not meant to be chewed on, and eating. For practical tips and real do-able strategies for these issues, check out Sensory Processing Explained: a Handbook for Parents and Educators.
Kids who have sensory needs can really struggle with falling asleep. It can be due to not getting enough sensory stimuli during the course of the day or because of sensory irritants that are present when they are trying to sleep.
Read Sleep Solutions for Sensory Needs to find common sleep issues for kids with sensory needs as well as find strategies to combat them.
Chewing on things they shouldn’t
For some kids, their need for oral sensory input leads to them chewing or sucking on things that they shouldn’t like collars, sleeves, fingers, toys, or pencils. Read What to do with Kids Who Chew for positive alternatives of things to chew on and other ways to save those sleeves!
Ahhhh! Getting dressed when you are sensitive to fabric textures or temperature or seams in socks or tags in shirts can present quite a challenge, particularly for kids who are not yet able to express their sensory preferences with words.
There are other sensory issues that can affect clothing choices as well such as our daughter’s desire to wear tight fitting clothing because of her need for proprioceptive sensory input. You can read that story and what our solution was in Tight Fitting Clothing: A Sensory Mystery Unravelled.
Going out in public
There are so many challenging things concerning sensory processing when it comes to things like running errands or going grocery shopping. Just going to a public washroom can be terrifying or exciting depending on a child being sensory seeking or avoiding. Find tried and true tips for this scenario in Surviving Public Washrooms with a Child with Sensory Needs.
Grocery stores, department stores, and clothing stores provide a plethora of sensory experiences which can make them daunting. Read ideas to help you Navigating the Store with a Child with Sensory Needs.
What items can help my child with sensory issues?
Sensory materials and tools vary depending on the sensory preferences and age of the child. There are many options for sensory activities and ways to save money by making your own sensory items and tools. It isn’t necessary to buy or create everything out there. So much is dependant on what will be effective for your particular child.
When researching the available sensory tools, it can be overwhelming. There are the noise cancelling headphones, weighted blankets and vests and lap pads, indoor swings, hammocks, stretchy sheets, fidgets, trampolines, visual timers, exercise ball, body socks, mermaid pillows, brushes, palm massagers, sound therapy machines, the list goes on and on. It may help you narrow it down to read our Must-Haves for Kids with Sensory Needs.
Occupational therapy to come up with a sensory diet designed to best suit your child’s individual needs can be helpful.
What are the best books on Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Explained: A Handbook for Parents and Educators (digital version)Buy NowSensory Processing Explained: A Handbook for Parents and Educators (paperback)The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook: How to Create Meaningful Sensory-Filled DaysSensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing DisorderThe Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing DisorderThe Out-of-Sync Child Grows Up: Coping with SPD in the Adolescent and Young Adult YearsSensory Processing 101Raising a Sensory Smart ChildUnderstanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals
Incorporating sensory play is an important aspect of helping kids with Sensory Processing Disorder to self-regulate and better be able to navigate the world around them. While sensory play may seem like, well, “play”, it is necessary for all kids, especially those with SPD.
Find a list of 175 Sensory Activity Ideas for Kids (sorted by sensory system).
Create sensory play activities for your child or students easily. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Join me for a free 5 part email series Sensory Solutions and Activities and get your Sensory System Behaviours Easy Reference Cards.