Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder

Conditions Basics

What is sensory processing disorder?

Children with sensory processing disorder have problems processing information from the senses. This makes it hard for them to respond to that information in the right way. The senses include touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing. In most cases, these children have one or more senses that either react too much or too little to stimulation. This disorder can cause problems with a child's development and behaviour.

Children with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other developmental disabilities often have sensory processing disorder. But this disorder can also be associated with other conditions. These may include premature birth, brain injury, and learning disorders.

What causes it?

The exact cause of sensory processing disorder isn't known. It is most often seen in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. Most research suggests that people with ASD have irregular brain function. More study is needed to find the cause of these irregularities. But current research shows they may be inherited.

What are the symptoms?

Children with sensory processing disorder cannot properly process sensory stimulation from the outside world. Your child may:

  • Either be in constant motion or fatigue easily or go back and forth between the two.
  • Withdraw when touched.
  • Refuse to eat certain foods because of how the foods feel when chewed.
  • Be oversensitive to odours.
  • Be hypersensitive to certain fabrics and only wear clothes that are soft or that they find pleasing.
  • Dislike getting their hands dirty.
  • Be uncomfortable with some movements, such as swinging, sliding, or going down ramps or other inclines. Your young child may have trouble learning to climb, go down stairs, or ride an escalator.
  • Have difficulty calming down after exercise or after becoming upset.
  • Jump, swing, and spin excessively.
  • Appear clumsy, trip easily, or have poor balance.
  • Have odd posture.
  • Have difficulty handling small objects such as buttons or snaps.
  • Be overly sensitive to sound. Vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, hair dryers, leaf blowers, or sirens may be upsetting.
  • Lack creativity and variety in play. For instance, your child may play with the same toys in the same manner over and over or prefer only to watch TV or videos.

How is it diagnosed?

Experts recommend that children who show signs of a sensory problem be checked for other conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder or an anxiety disorder. A doctor who has special training to care for children with development and behaviour concerns or a mental health professional can check for these conditions. Your child may also see an occupational therapist (OT). The OT will observe how your child stands and balances, his or her coordination, eye movements, and how your child responds to stimulation.

How is sensory processing disorder treated?

Sensory integration therapy, usually conducted by an occupational therapist or physiotherapist, is often recommended for children who have sensory processing disorder. It focuses on activities that challenge the child with sensory input. The therapist then helps the child respond appropriately to this sensory stimulus.

Therapy might include applying deep touch pressure to a child's skin with the goal of allowing the child to become more used to and process being touched. Also, play such as tug-of-war or with heavy objects, such as a medicine ball, can help increase a child's awareness of their own body in space and how it relates to other people.

Although it has not been widely studied, many therapists have found that sensory integration therapy improves problem behaviours.


Current as of: March 1, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Louis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics