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Sensory Processing Disorder

‘The earlier your intervention, the better the outcome for your child’

5 senses

Last week we talked about the sensory system which takes information from the surrounding environment through touch, smell, sound, vision, taste, movement, and gravity. 

Sensory processing organises and interprets these sensations together to make sense of the environment.  The process of sensory integration lays the foundation for the efficient operation of the nervous system and other parts of the body that respond to signals sent by the nervous system. The child then responds to these sensory inputs and makes appropriate responses to perform the skills required.

Sensory processing impacts:

  • Co-ordination and motor skills – both big movements (gross motor skills) such as running and climbing; and small movements (fine motor skills) such as handwriting, doing up buttons, fiddly crafts etc.
  • Ability to concentrate and stay on task
  • Ability to self-regulate
  • Ability to control our emotions and reactions to events
  • Ability to do things in specific environments e.g. dealing with noisy environments, being able to tolerate walking on sand on the beach, being able to tune out small distractions in order to concentrate.

What is Sensory processing disorder (SPD) (formerly known as “sensory integration dysfunction”) is a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t integrate to provide appropriate responses, the various types of sensory information are processed by multi-sensory integration. 1

Difficulties can occur with any of the senses:

  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Olfactory (smell)

Other senses that may not be thought of commonly also include:

  • Muscle (proprioception)
  • Vestibular (movement)

In each of these systems, a child or adult may have different responses to different stimuli or in different environments.  These can be summarised as three main responses:

  • Over sensitive (or sensory defensive)
  • Under responding (or needing more input)
  • Sensory Seeking, or sensory craving

Difficulties can occur with any of our senses. Below are some examples of what this might look like in a child (or adult).


  • I’m touching and feeling everything. I can get my hands on. I’m constantly fiddling (seeking)
  • I keep trying to put the wrong puzzle piece in the wrong hole. I can’t feel the feedback that my choice is wrong (under responsive)
  • I hate wearing socks and jumpers. I can’t stand walking on sand or grass with bear feet. (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).


  • I love spicy foods! (seeking)
  • I put too much food in my mouth when eating (under responsive)
  • I’m a really picky eater and don’t like my textures mixed together (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).


  • I love flicking light switches on and off and watching shadows move (seeking).
  • I get lost on my homework or math page and don’t know where to start and find it hard to keep on track (under responsive)
  • I hate bright lights and prefer to be inside in a room without the lights on. I find fluorescent lights too much (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).


  • I love making noise and experimenting with different sounds (seeking).
  • I find it hard to hear verbal cues and I’m better off if you get my attention visually first before you ask me to do something (under responsive).
  • I hate loud noises which might not seem loud to you. Or I might get distracted or anxious by small noises such as the air conditioner or a car driving past (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).

Olfactory (smell)

  • I love smelling everything! (seeking)
  • I don’t pick up or recognise smells usually (under responsive)
  • I notice smells a lot and I find it difficult to be around people with a strong perfume on. It really bothers me. (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).

Other senses that may not be thought of commonly also include:

Muscle (proprioception)

  • I love lifting, pushing, pulling, moving things! (seeking)
  • I find it hard to get going in the morning. Adults sometimes label me as lazy as I can’t get going. My OT (occupational therapist) says I have low muscle tone and this makes me tired sometimes. (under responsive)
  • I don’t like climbing as I don’t like the feeling in my joints when I pull against gravity (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).

Vestibular (movement)

  • I love big swings, big rides, running around a lot. I’ll be the first one you notice in my classroom! (seeking)
  • I find it hard to get going in the morning sometimes. My OT says I should jump on the trampoline to wake up before school to help me get just right.
  • I prefer to stay still. I don’t like swings or playgrounds. I like my feet on the ground. I often get car sick while travelling. (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).

To be continued. Next, we will talk about how to help a child with Sensory Processing Disorder, what is the Sensory Integration therapy and where to look for help.


Agnieszka Pietras
Learning Support Teacher


Stein BE, Stanford TR, Rowland BA (December 2009). “The neural basis of multisensory integration in the midbrain: its organization and maturation”. Hear. Res. 258 (1-2): 415. doi:10.1016/j.heares.2009.03.012PMC 2787841PMID 19345256.