What Is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

Discover the hidden world of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and unravel its impact on daily life. Understand what SPD is and how to find support.

July 6, 2024

Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that affects how the brain processes and responds to sensory information from the environment. Individuals with SPD may have difficulty processing and integrating sensory stimuli, leading to challenges in daily functioning. To gain a better understanding of SPD, let's explore what it is and the different types of sensory processing disorder.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder, also known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction, is a condition where the brain struggles to interpret and respond to sensory information accurately. Sensory information includes what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. For individuals with SPD, their brain may overreact, underreact, or have an inconsistent response to sensory input.

SPD can affect people of all ages and is often seen in children. It can coexist with other conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and developmental delays. The specific causes of SPD are still being studied, but it is believed to be related to atypical brain development and genetic factors.

Types of Sensory Processing Disorder

There are three primary types of Sensory Processing Disorder, each characterized by a distinct pattern of sensory responses:

  1. Sensory Overresponsivity (SOR): Individuals with SOR have heightened sensitivity to sensory input. They may be easily overwhelmed by ordinary sounds, textures, smells, or visual stimuli. Common reactions include covering ears, avoiding certain textures, or becoming anxious in crowded places.
  2. Sensory Underresponsivity (SUR): People with SUR may seem unresponsive or unaware of sensory stimuli. They may have difficulty noticing or responding appropriately to sensory input. For example, they may not react when touched or may have a high pain threshold.
  3. Sensory Seeking/ Craving (SSC): Those with SSC actively seek out sensory stimulation and may have difficulty staying still or maintaining appropriate personal space. They may engage in repetitive behaviors like rocking, spinning, or seeking deep pressure to satisfy their sensory needs.

It's important to note that individuals with SPD can exhibit a combination of these types, and the specific sensory challenges can vary from person to person.

Understanding the different types of SPD lays the foundation for recognizing and addressing the unique sensory needs of individuals with this condition. By providing appropriate support and accommodations, individuals with SPD can thrive and navigate the world more comfortably.

Signs and Symptoms of SPD

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) manifests in a variety of ways, with individuals experiencing unique challenges in processing sensory information. The following are three common categories of sensory processing difficulties associated with SPD: sensory overresponsivity, sensory underresponsivity, and sensory seeking/craving.

Sensory Overresponsivity

People with sensory overresponsivity may exhibit heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli. Everyday sounds, textures, tastes, or visual stimuli that may not bother others can be overwhelming and distressing for individuals with this type of SPD. They may have strong reactions, such as covering their ears, avoiding certain textures, or becoming easily startled by unexpected noises.

Sensory Underresponsivity

Individuals with sensory underresponsivity may have difficulty registering or responding to sensory stimuli. They may seem unresponsive or unaware of their surroundings. These individuals may seek out intense sensory experiences to compensate for their reduced sensitivity.

Sensory Seeking/ Craving

Individuals with sensory seeking/craving tendencies actively seek out sensory stimulation to meet their sensory needs. They may engage in repetitive behaviors, exhibit a high activity level, or seek intense sensory input to regulate their sensory system.

Understanding the signs and symptoms of SPD can help individuals, families, and professionals identify and address the challenges associated with sensory processing difficulties. It's important to remember that these symptoms can vary from person to person, and individuals with SPD may exhibit a combination of these sensory processing patterns.

Diagnosing SPD

Diagnosing Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) involves a comprehensive evaluation and assessment process conducted by healthcare professionals. This helps to identify the presence and severity of sensory processing difficulties in individuals. The diagnosis of SPD typically involves two key components: evaluation and assessment, and working with healthcare professionals.

Evaluation and Assessment

The evaluation and assessment phase of diagnosing SPD involves gathering information about the individual's sensory experiences and behaviors. This process may include:

  1. Parent/Caregiver Questionnaires: Healthcare professionals may provide questionnaires to parents or caregivers to gather information about the individual's sensory behaviors and responses in different environments. These questionnaires help to identify patterns and levels of sensory responsiveness.
  2. Clinical Observation: Healthcare professionals observe the individual's behavior in various sensory situations and settings. They may look for signs of sensory overresponsivity, underresponsivity, or seeking/craving behaviors. This observational assessment provides valuable insights into the individual's sensory processing patterns.
  3. Standardized Assessments: Healthcare professionals may use standardized assessments, such as the Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT) or the Sensory Processing Measure (SPM), to evaluate specific aspects of sensory processing. These assessments provide quantitative data that aids in diagnosis and treatment planning.

Working with Healthcare Professionals

Working closely with healthcare professionals is essential in the diagnosis and management of SPD. Here are some key professionals who may be involved in the process:

  1. Occupational Therapist (OT): Occupational therapists play a central role in assessing and treating SPD. They have specialized knowledge and expertise in sensory integration and can administer formal assessments, provide therapy, and recommend strategies to help individuals with SPD.
  2. Pediatrician/Primary Care Physician: A pediatrician or primary care physician may be the first point of contact for concerns related to sensory processing difficulties. They can help facilitate referrals to specialists, such as occupational therapists or developmental pediatricians, for further evaluation and diagnosis.
  3. Developmental Pediatrician: In some cases, a developmental pediatrician may be involved in the diagnosis of SPD. They specialize in assessing developmental disorders and can provide a comprehensive evaluation of the individual's overall development, including sensory processing.
  4. Psychologist/Psychiatrist: Psychologists or psychiatrists may be involved in the diagnosis and management of SPD, particularly when there are co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorder. These professionals can provide additional insights and support regarding mental health aspects related to SPD.

It's important to note that the diagnosis of SPD requires a multidisciplinary approach, with collaboration among various healthcare professionals. This ensures a comprehensive understanding of the individual's sensory difficulties and helps develop a tailored treatment plan to address their specific needs.

By undergoing evaluation and assessment and working with healthcare professionals, individuals with SPD can receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate support to manage their sensory challenges effectively.

Living with SPD

Living with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can present unique challenges for individuals. However, there are strategies and support systems available to help cope with SPD and create sensory-friendly environments.

Strategies for Coping with SPD

For individuals with SPD, implementing strategies to manage sensory sensitivities can greatly improve their daily lives. Here are some effective coping strategies:

  1. Sensory Diet: Developing a sensory diet involves creating a structured schedule that incorporates sensory activities to regulate and meet sensory needs. This can include activities such as deep pressure therapy, weighted blankets, or sensory breaks.
  2. Environmental Modifications: Making changes to the physical environment can help reduce sensory overload. This may involve minimizing clutter, using soft lighting, or providing quiet spaces for relaxation.
  3. Self-Regulation Techniques: Learning self-regulation techniques can empower individuals with SPD to manage sensory challenges independently. Techniques such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, or progressive muscle relaxation can help reduce anxiety and promote self-calming.
  4. Social and Emotional Support: Seeking support from family, friends, or support groups can provide valuable emotional support. Engaging in open communication about SPD can help others understand and accommodate individual needs.

Creating Sensory-Friendly Environments

Creating sensory-friendly environments is essential for individuals with SPD to thrive and feel comfortable. Here are some considerations for designing such environments:

  1. Noise Control: Minimize loud or sudden noises by using soundproofing materials, white noise machines, or earplugs. Consider using visual cues and schedules to help individuals anticipate and prepare for auditory input.
  2. Lighting: Adjust lighting to reduce harsh or flickering lights that may cause discomfort. Natural light or soft, diffused lighting can create a more soothing environment.
  3. Tactile Experiences: Incorporate various textures and tactile experiences to promote sensory exploration. Provide options for different seating surfaces, fidget toys, or tactile materials that individuals can engage with.
  4. Visual Organization: Establish visual cues and organizational systems to promote structure and predictability. Visual schedules, labels, and visual timers can help individuals navigate daily routines and transitions.

Support and Resources for Individuals with SPD

Having access to support and resources is essential for individuals with SPD and their families. Here are some avenues for finding assistance:

By implementing coping strategies, creating sensory-friendly environments, and utilizing available support and resources, individuals with SPD can navigate their daily lives more comfortably and confidently. It is important to remember that each person's experience with SPD is unique, and finding personalized approaches that work best for them is key.