This is the first installment of our nine-part Sensory Spotlight series.
Sensory processing occurs when the brain receives and
organizes information from external sources, such as light or sound, and
internal bodily cues, such as hunger or balance. Individuals with Sensory
Processing Disorder (SPD) do not respond to this everyday sensory information
the same way most people do. They may feel bombarded or assaulted by even the
smallest bit of stimulation, or they might be unable to recognize even very
extreme sensations or changes in their environment. Studies suggest as many as
1 in 20 people have sensory processing issues, and symptoms are typically much more
pronounced in children.
Children with SPD often have a hard time fitting in with
their peer group. They might show signs of anxiety or depression, be withdrawn,
struggle socially and academically, or appear clumsy. Many children have
learned to cope with their symptoms in ways that might appear odd to others,
such as rocking, constantly learning on walls or furniture, sucking on their
thumbs or other objects, etc.
SPD is generally broken down into the three patterns and thirteen subtypes listed below. Keep in mind the exact symptoms will vary greatly from one individual to the next. Many people with SPD demonstrate a combination of sensitivities and seeking/avoiding behaviors, depending on their level of arousal and how familiar they are with their current environment.
Pattern 1: Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD)
Sensory Over-Responsivity (Hypersensitivity) –
Over-responsive individuals, or avoiders, are hyperaware of sensory
input and may have extreme or upsetting reactions to even mild stimulation,
such as crying out in pain while brushing their hair or gagging at very faint
smells. Avoiders often feel overloaded and overwhelmed by everyday situations
and may appear anxious, withdrawn, or defensive as a result.
Sensory Under-Responsivity (Hyposensitivity) – Those who are under-responsive have difficulties detecting and/or responding to sensory input in a timely manner. They might not notice that the lighting or temperature in the room has changed, for example, or that they’ve bumped into something and injured themselves. As a result, under-responsive individuals often appear distracted, dismissive, or clumsy.
Sensory Craving – Sensory cravers, or seekers, have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for sensory stimulation, though they tend to become more keyed up and deregulated as they take in more input. Seekers usually demonstrate behaviors associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), such low impulse control and constant moving, fidgeting, bumping into things, or fiddling with objects.
Pattern 2: Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD)
Postural Disorder – Postural disorder affects the
body’s ability to stabilize itself and maintain a sense of balance. Individuals
with this subtype often have problems slouching or bad posture. They might also
appear to be weak, move awkwardly, or have extremely low endurance.
Dyspraxia (Motor Planning Problems) – Those with dyspraxia
have difficulty planning and performing new, nonhabitual gross and fine motor
tasks. They might appear to have extremely poor hand-eye coordination, problems
with concentration, and take much longer than their peers to learn a new skill.
Pattern 3: Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD)
Individuals with this pattern have difficulty recognizing
and interpreting sensory information. They’re often unable to gauge the
physical differences between objects, such as size, color, shape, or distance.
They might be unaware of the pressure or force they’re exerting at a given
moment and appear awkward, clumsy, and prone to spilling drinks or breaking
SDD is further broken down into eight subtypes, one for each
We’ll be taking a deeper dive into each of these systems, including strategies for supporting children with SPD, as our Sensory Spotlight series continues. Stay tuned!
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