Sensory Processing Disorder

Crowd on street in bright lens flareSensory Processing Disorder (SPD), also known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction, is a condition that causes difficulty with processing and organizing sensory information. This impairment can lead to a variety of issues, including clumsiness, behavioral concerns, and anxiety. It can be severe enough to interfere with daily functioning.

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

The brain and spinal cord receive input from the five senses (sight, hearing, sound, touch, and taste). When the brain does not properly respond to sensory signals, processing issues can occur. Although every person is unique, people with SPD usually fall into one of two categories, hypersensitive or hyposensitive:

Symptoms of hypersensitivity, or the state of being overly responsive to sensory information, may include:

  • Extreme sensitivity to sudden or loud noises
  • Fear of crowds
  • Discomfort when wearing clothing because of how the fabric feels
  • Reluctance to eat certain foods because of their texture
  • Fear of touching and cuddling
  • Distraction from background noises that go unnoticed by others
  • Poor balance
  • Extreme anxiety about falling 

Symptoms of hyposensitivity, or being less responsive to sensory information, may include:

  • Clumsiness
  • Fidgeting
  • Difficulty sensing personal boundaries
  • Difficulty understanding strength (may cause unintentional harm to children or pets)
  • Indifference to pain and extreme temperatures

Sensory Processing Disorder is most commonly diagnosed in childhood. Studies estimate that 5-16% of children have SPD. The exact percentage is under debate, since many health care professionals lack experience with diagnosing and treating the condition.

SPD often occurs in individuals who are on the autism spectrum or have developmental issues. While experts are still researching the exact causes of SPD, they believe it is due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Environmental influences include low birth weight, premature birth, and brain injury.

Is Sensory Processing Disorder a Condition or a Symptom?

Doctors are certain that some children experience sensory processing issues. However, there is debate over whether SPD is a distinct condition or a symptom of a broader diagnosis.

Those who believe it is a symptom claim that a diagnosis of SPD alone is not descriptive enough to be helpful. Since SPD has such a wide variety of manifestations, the label means different things for each individual. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises doctors against diagnosing SPD. Instead, they encourage doctors to identify what other conditions may be causing the difficulties. SPD is not listed in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Other people want doctors to recognize an SPD diagnosis so that the public can understand it better. They want to lessen the stigma associated with the condition. There are financial implications as well. Once doctors recognize a diagnosis as valid, research can be funded, and insurance companies can cover the cost of treatment.

How Is SPD Managed and Treated?

Sensory integration therapy, which is provided by an occupational or physical therapist, is a common treatment for SPD. The therapy typically involves helping the individual to respond appropriately to sensory information. For example, a therapist may expose a person to strong textures or smells to get them used to those stimuli. The goal of treatment is for the individual to engage in activities typical for their age and ability level more comfortably and appropriately.

Coping with a Diagnosis of SPD

Children with SPD often experience emotional, social, and academic concerns. They may have difficulty making friends or have frequent trouble in school due to their sensory issues. In adulthood, people may have difficulties in their relationships and workplaces. They may also experience anxiety, depression, underachievement, and other co-occurring issues.

A trained therapist can help people avoid these outcomes. Therapists can properly diagnose sensory issues, provide treatment, and serve as a source of compassionate support. Parents of children with SPD may also benefit from seeking their own therapy, where they can learn techniques to help their child cope with everyday challenges. With professional help, people with SPD often find the condition improves.


  1. About SPD. (n.d.). Star Center Foundation. Retrieved from
  2. Impact and treatment of SPD. (n.d.). Star Center Foundation. Retrieved from
  3. Signs and symptoms of sensory processing disorder. (2012). Brain Balance Centers. Retrieved from
  4. The debate over sensory processing disorder: Are some kids really “out of sync”? (2014, May 12). The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Last Updated: 11-20-2017

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