Recognizing SPD: Is Your Child Out of Sync?

Sensory processing disorder, or SPD, can often be missed — particularly when ADHD is involved. Here's how you can recognize and treat SPD in your child.

The distorted hand of a child with sensory processing disorder, waiting for the condition to be recognized

SPD Symptoms: At a Glance

SPD is suspected when a child exhibits one or more of the following symptoms with frequency, intensity, and duration. Frequency means several times a day. Intensity means that the child adamantly avoids sensory stimulation, or throws his whole body and soul into getting the stimulation he needs. Duration means that he persists in his unusual behavior for several minutes or longer.

Touch: Avoids touching or being touched by objects and people. May react with a fight-or-flight response to getting dirty, to certain textures of clothing and food, and to another’s unexpected touch.

Movement: Avoids moving or being unexpectedly moved. Is insecure in regard to gravity; may be anxious when tipped off balance; may avoid running, climbing, sliding, or swinging; may feel seasick in cars or elevators.

Body Position: May be stiff, rigid, tense, and uncoordinated; may avoid playground activities that require good body awareness.

Sights: May get overexcited when there is too much to look at — words, toys, or other children; may cover his eyes, have poor eye contact; be inattentive when drawing or doing desk work, or overreact to bright light.

Sounds: May cover his ears to shut out sounds or voices; may complain about noises, such as the vacuum cleaner and blender, that don’t bother others.

Smells: May object to odors, such as ripe banana, that other children don’t notice.

Tastes: May strongly object to certain textures and temperatures of foods; may gag when he eats.

Touch: May be unaware of pain, temperature, or how objects feel. May wallow in the mud, paw through toys purposelessly, chew on inedible objects like shirt cuffs, rub against walls and furniture, and bump into people.

Movement: Craves fast and spinning movement, such as swinging, rocking, twirling, and riding merry-go-rounds—without getting dizzy; may move constantly, fidget, enjoy getting into upside-down positions, and be a daredevil.

Body Position: May slump or slouch; may be clumsy; may bump into objects, stamp his feet, and twiddle his fingers.

Sights: May touch everything to learn about it, because her vision is not sufficiently coordinated; may miss important visual cues, such as another person’s facial expressions, as well as signposts and written directions.

Sounds: May ignore voices and have difficulty following verbal directions; may not listen well to himself and speak in a booming voice; may want the TV and radio to be loud.

Smells: May ignore unpleasant odors, like dirty diapers; may sniff food, people, and objects.

Tastes: May lick or taste inedible objects, like Play-Doh and toys; may prefer very spicy or very hot foods.


Sensory processing disorder is a common but misunderstood problem that affects children’s behavior, influencing the way they learn, move, relate to others, and feel about themselves.

SPD is the inability to process information received through the senses. Dysfunction happens in the central nervous system, at the “head” of which is the brain. When a glitch occurs, the brain cannot analyze, organize, and connect — or integrate — sensory messages. The result of SPD is that the child cannot respond to sensory information and behave in a meaningful, consistent way. He may also have difficulty using sensory information to plan and organize what he needs to do. Thus, he may not learn easily.

Most parents, educators, and doctors have a hard time recognizing SPD. They mistake a child’s behavior, low self-esteem, or reluctance to participate in childhood experiences for hyperactivity, learning disabilities, or emotional problems. Few people understand that those behaviors may stem from a poorly functioning nervous system.

Lookalike Disabilities

Many SPD symptoms look like symptoms of other common disabilities. Indeed, Patricia S. Lemer, M.Ed., N.C.C., says that so many symptoms overlap that it is difficult to tell one condition from another.

If a child is inattentive and can’t sustain attention in tasks or play activities, he may have SPD. If a child is hyperactive and impulsive, he, too, may have SPD.

But might something else be going on? Yes, indeed. Alternative diagnoses might be:

> learning-related visual problems
> allergies
> nutritional or vitamin deficiencies
> behaving like a normal child

How can one tell the difference between SPD, ADHD, and learning disabilities? The red flags of SPD are a child’s unusual responses to touching and being touched, and to moving or being moved. Some children have only SPD; some have ADHD; some have SPD and learning disabilities. Some have a combination of all three.

Unfortunately, SPD symptoms are often misinterpreted as psychological problems. These may develop if the underlying cause of SPD is not recognized or addressed early. The inability to cope with emotional, physical, and social challenges is often present by the age of three or four if intervention has not yet begun.

SPD and ADHD may both affect an out-of-sync child. Neurological problems are on a continuum: The more difficulty a child has in one area, the more difficulty he is likely to have in others. Careful analysis of a child’s behavior is necessary to determine that he has SPD and not ADHD, and treatment for the two problems differs. Treatment for ADHD involves behavior management and stimulants. Medication can help the child with ADHD, but does not make SPD go away. Occupational therapy that focuses on sensory integration and recreational activities that strengthen basic sensory and motor skills help a child with SPD.

If you are pretty certain that your child has SPD and you want to locate an occupational therapist to evaluate or to screen your child, there are several options: the occupational therapy department of your local children’s hospital; private practitioners in your area listed online; the American Occupational Therapy Association (; or the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation (

Hope Is at Hand

You may be asking: Is my child’s development out of my hands? Will my child become an out-of-sync adult? Not necessarily. Your child has a good chance of becoming a competent, self-regulating, smoothly functioning grownup, if he or she receives understanding, support, and early intervention.

Occupational therapy is the first-line treatment for SPD. An occupational therapist improves the functioning of a person’s nervous system, which may be damaged, as in an accident victim, or may be inefficient, as in a child whose behavior is ineffective and inappropriate.

Young children respond well to early intervention because their central nervous systems are still flexible, or “plastic.” As children grow, it is harder to improve their neurological functioning because their brains are less malleable and their reactions to sensations are more established.

For a child with severe dysfunction, treatment is crucial. For the child with moderate or even mild dysfunction, treatment can make a wonderful difference.

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TAGS: Comorbid Conditions with ADD, Hypersensitivity

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