What is a Sensory Processing Disorder?

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As humans, we are sensory creatures. Our senses allow us to take several perspectives of the world at the same time. We internalize and process them to weave together the story of our existence. We are designed to experience life with the senses we have available to us. Our nervous systems are the energy field that connect us to the outside world, allowing us to interpret, analyze, synthesize, memorize and respond to our surroundings.

Isn’t it fascinating that although our anatomy follows a basic blueprint, the subtleties and variation within our bodies allow us to perceive the world in a way that is unique and individualized?

Each person is experiencing their world in their own, weird ways. It is this variance in perspective and perception that evolves humanity towards innovation, problem-solving and epiphanies.

Thus, by optimizing our nervous systems we are laying the foundation to become the optimal versions of ourselves. And yes, this applies to everyone with a nervous system.

Though some research indicates the use of Sensory Integration Therapy (SI) and Sensory Based Interventions for adult populations (i.e. mental health, geriatric settings, etc.) Most research and clinical practice interventions are focused in pediatric populations (0-21).

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a disorder that can affect anywhere from 5-16% of school aged children [1]. Sensory processing issues are often linked with common diagnoses such as attention-deficit hyper-activity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia, developmental dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome, speech delays, multiple sclerosis and others [2]. There are three types of SPD: Sensory Modulation Disorder (Type I), Sensory Based Motor Disorder (Type II) and Sensory Discrimination Disorder (Type III). Because of these subtypes, the symptomology of these three types is expanded upon individually.

SPD can have a major effect in the everyday activities that bring joy and meaning to the lives of individuals and families. Take for example, the preschooler who refuses to engage in a school project due to an aversion to textures (glue on fingers= automatic yuck), or the adult unable to attend an office happy hour who perceives loud conversations and atmospheres as noxious (*points finger to self*).

On the contrary, the under-responsive teenager who appears lethargic with fluctuating energy levels, frequently reprimanded by their teacher for lateness and “not paying attention”.

This video is very cute and will teach you in an extremely adorable way the things you need to know about SPD. Not all people with SPD are on the Autism spectrum, the reverse is also true.

As an occupational therapist, I often utilize sensory integration therapy and sensory-based interventions for children and adults.

Sensory Integration Therapy is a form of occupational therapy designed to optimize the way sensory information is processed, integrated, and responded to by the client or patient. This is done to maximize a person’s function in their environment.

The occupational therapist achieves this goal by:

  • Interviewing the family, caregiver, or client on the habits, roles and routines of the individual with SPD.
  • Observing how sensory differences effect the person’s participation in activities
  • Administering assessments, such as the Sensory Profile or SIPT
  • Creating a treatment plan based to maximize the client’s strengths, utilize their interests, and remediate/rehabilitee a dysfunctional nervous system.
  • Design activities to promote the optimization of the senses
  • Perform interventions such as joint compression, brushing, massage, etc. to facilitate performance in everyday activities
  • Recommend work/classroom environmental adaptations
  • Recommend and train caregivers and support staff (such as teachers, nurses, one-to-one aids, etc.) on basic sensory regulation activities
  • Design a sensory diet based on individualized needs
  • Recommend community resources for client’s and loved ones
  • Support the person receiving therapy in living a meaningful, extraordinary life by embracing their differences and utilizing their strengths.

To learn more about Occupational Therapy, visit AOTA .

To learn more about Sensory Processing Disorders, visit the STAR Institute.

Stay tuned for posts outlining specific SPDs, signs, and symptoms.

If you believe you or a loved one may have an SPD, please seek medical consultation from a physician and occupational therapist.


[1] https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kidsi

[2] http://www.autism-help.org/comorbid-sensory-integration-dysfunction.htm

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