What Are the Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder?

Medically Reviewed on 2/26/2021

What are the symptoms of sensory processing disorder?

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) or sensory integration disorder is a collection of challenges that occur when sensations fail to respond properly to the outside world. The cause of sensory processing disorder is unknown, but genetics, congenital conditions and environmental factors may be to blame.
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) or sensory integration disorder is a collection of challenges that occur when sensations fail to respond properly to the outside world. The cause of sensory processing disorder is unknown, but genetics, congenital conditions and environmental factors may be to blame.

People with sensory processing disorder (SPD) fall into one of two categories.

  • Hypersensitive (over-reactive): These people are unusually sensitive to sensory input (lights, sounds, touch, smells and textures) or are overly responsive to sensory information. Symptoms of hypersensitivity may include
    • Extreme sensitivity to sudden or loud noises
    • Fear of crowds
    • Discomfort when wearing clothing because of how the fabric feels
    • Reluctance to eat certain foods because of their texture
    • Fear of touching and cuddling
    • Distraction from background noises that go unnoticed by others
    • Poor balance
    • Extreme anxiety about falling
  • Hyposensitive (under-reactive): These people are less sensitive to sensory inputs or less responsive to sensory information. Symptoms may include
    • Clumsiness
    • Fidgeting
    • Difficulty sensing personal boundaries
    • Difficulty understanding strength (may cause unintentional harm to children or pets)
    • Indifferent to pain and extreme temperatures

What is sensory processing disorder?

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) or sensory integration disorder is a collection of challenges that occur when sensations fail to respond properly to the outside world. It is a complex neurological condition that impairs the normal functioning of a person. The central nervous system of people with SPD mismanages bodily and environmental sensations. People with SPD have difficulty responding to sensations in an adaptive way that others hardly notice or easily take in stride. It’s estimated that SPD affects 5 to 16 percent of school-aged children.

Causes

  • The cause of SPD is still being researched.
  • However, studies have revealed that there may be a genetic component to light and sound hypersensitivity.
  • Researchers found that when one twin was overly sensitive, the other twin was more likely to be too. This study also showed that fearful or anxious children may have sensory issues with tactile stimuli (such as hair brushing).
  • Other studies have indicated that sensory issues may be more common in children born prematurely or with birth complications.
  • SPD has also been linked with abnormal brain activity. Scientists suggest that prenatal and birth conditions or environmental factors are to blame. SPD can also occur after the nerves are damaged by a brain or spinal cord injury.

Diagnosis

  • Occupational therapists may help diagnose a person’s condition depending on their symptoms. The first noticeable sign in a child is dramatic mood swings or tantrums. Children may be unable to control actions and may become aggressive toward others, themselves or property.
  • Sometimes, people may need magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) of the brain to check for any brain injuries that may have initiated SPD symptoms.

Treatment

  • Working with occupational therapists helps manage a person’s daily activities such as brushing teeth or getting dressed or reduce sensory difficulties with desensitization programs, for example, getting used to a noisy shop by going in for a few minutes at first and then building up the time spent in the shop.
  • Working with several specialists and professionals in a multidisciplinary team helps with a person’s behavior that’s interfering with their everyday life, for example, being distracted in class, not liking having their hair washed or brushed or being fearful of swings and other types of playground equipment.
  • Working with psychologists helps the person with anxiety in situations where sensory experiences can be unpredictable or overwhelming, such as a child worrying that they’ll have to eat certain foods if they go to someone’s house for dinner.
  • Using equipment, for example, sound-blocking headphones, to manage specific symptoms can be used.
  • Taking medications to help manage specific symptoms such as sleep difficulties or anxiety.
  • Parents of children with SPD may also benefit from seeking their own therapy where they can learn techniques to help their child cope with everyday challenges. The condition of people with SPD often improves with professional help.

Sensory processing issues can pose several challenges to affected children and their families. Children with SPD often experience emotional, social and academic concerns. They may have difficulty making friends or frequent trouble in schools due to their sensory issues. In adulthood, people may have difficulties in their relationships and workplaces. They may also experience anxietydepression, underachievement and other co-occurring issues. Management may be especially difficult when sensory problems co-occur with other conditions or disorders. However, with the right resources, children and adults with sensory processing issues can thrive.

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Medically Reviewed on 2/26/2021
References
Medscape Medical Reference

STAR Institute