Sensory Processing Disorder: Symptoms and Diagnosis

Does your child hate socks with stitching and shirts with tags? Does perfume make him gag? Does he plug his ears at outdoor concerts? Here’s how you can tell whether these are signs and symptoms of sensory processing disorder (SPD).

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is the inability to screen out external stimuli – making the smallest stimuli unbearable – or the need to search out high-stimulus activities to arouse sluggish senses. It is a neurological condition that makes it difficult for the body to receive messages from the senses and turn them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. SPD may occur in up to 10 percent of children and commonly co-occurs with ADHD. It is important to identify and treat the condition at a young age.

Signs and Symptoms of SPD in Children

A child with SPD finds it hard to process and act upon the information received through his senses: sounds, sights, movement, touch, smell, and taste. The causes of SPD are unclear. While the condition may be genetic, there are also extrinsic factors that put children at risk, such as maternal deprivation, premature birth, prenatal malnutrition, and early institutional care. The signs of SPD in children include:

• Feelings that a shade is pulled over the outside world

• Experiencing muted sights, sounds, and touch

• Feelings of sensory overload

Common triggers of SPD include:

• Hair brushing

• Tight clothes or coarse fabric on skin

• Loud noises such as fireworks or thunder

• Bright lights like camera flashes, sunshine, or strobes

• Strong odors including perfume or scented detergent

• Swimming in lakes

• Sticky fingers

• Tags on clothes

• Being touched or hugged

• Wearing shoes

• Tart or bitter foods

Signs and Symptoms of SPD in Adults

Sensory triggers for adults may be similar to those above. If you are hypersensitive to the point that it interferes with your functioning, you may have SPD. Many adults describe the feeling as being assaulted, attacked, or invaded by everyday experiences, like ticking clocks, hissing radiators, or strong perfume. They are bothered by sounds or textures that most people don’t hear or feel. These experiences can become physically and emotionally unbearable and extremely distracting. Even loose hair on their neck or wrinkles in the sheets can be a source of agitation. People with ADHD and SPD can experience hypersensitivities in all five senses.


Once you recognize the signs of SPD in you or your child, locate a knowledgeable professional — usually a trained occupational therapist — to perform an evaluation. And the earlier the better. Many people with SPD never receive an accurate diagnosis since the condition can resemble many other problems. SPD is often misdiagnosed as ADHD, a learning disability, or even pervasive developmental disorder.

There are protocols that exist for diagnosing SPD, including parent surveys and other clinical assessments that look for red flags and developmental delays. An evaluation may include a physical exam, speech and language evaluation, and psychological questioning. Some doctors are skeptical about SPD because symptoms are not quantified and vary from individual to individual. SPD is not yet recognized in the DSM-V. Make sure to find a physician who understands the condition. Typically, occupational therapists with advanced training in sensory processing and integration are qualified to identify the condition.

Many people develop coping strategies to avoid unpleasant stimuli, which can complicate a diagnosis. Some children will avoid certain activities or textures, which does not eradicate the condition. Other people will seek out activities that help symptoms, such as swimming or swinging, which help regulate brain pathways responsible for integrating the senses. Sometimes people will outgrow or grow into symptoms, and find an occupation that “protects” them from unpleasant sights, sounds, and smells.

A diagnosis can help, even if it comes in adulthood.

TAGS: Hypersensitivity, Comorbid Conditions with ADD

Share your comments, questions and advice on ADDConnect!
Join our online support groups to learn about treatment options, coping mechanisms, related conditions and much more.

Copyright © 1998 - 2016 New Hope Media LLC. All rights reserved. Your use of this site is governed by our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.
ADDitude does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this web site is provided for educational purposes only. See additional information.
New Hope Media, 108 West 39th Street, Suite 805, New York, NY 10018