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Sensory Processing Disorder 101

Everything you need to know about Sensory Processing Disorder — from the definition and symptoms, to diagnosis and treatment.

by Priscilla Scherer

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that makes it difficult for the body to receive messages from the senses and turn them into the appropriate motor and behavioral responses. 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.

Who’s at Risk?

Some experts believe that sensory processing goes awry in as many as 10% of children. As with ADHD, the causes of SPD can be unclear. While the condition may be genetic, there are also some extrinsic factors that put children at risk such as maternal deprivation, premature birth, prenatal malnutrition and early institutional care. SPD is higher among children who were adopted from orphanages and among those with repeated ear infections before age 2.

What Does SPD Feel Like?

For some children with SPD, information reaching the senses feels like an assault of competing stimuli. For others, outside stimuli are dulled, as if a shade has been pulled over the environment, muting sights, sounds, and touch. These children crave extra stimulation to feel alive. Most children with SPD display elements of both extremes, suffering from sensory overload at some times, seeking stimulation at others.


SPD can be a stand-alone disorder, or it may coexist with other disorders, such as ADHD. We now know that many children with ADHD also suffer from SPD. Lucy Jane Miller, Ph.D., director of the Sensory Processing Treatment and Research Center, in Denver, Colorado, has found that "more than half of children suspected to have ADHD had SPD or both conditions."

Common Triggers

Common SPD triggers include hair brushing, tight clothes, loud noises (fireworks, thunder), bright lights (camera flashes, bright sun, strobe lights), odors (perfume, scented detergent), coarse fabric on skin, swimming in lakes, sticky fingers, tags on clothes, being touched or hugged, wearing shoes and tart or bitter foods.

The Diagnosis

Once you recognize the possibility of SPD in your child, the next step is to locate a knowledgeable professional, usually a trained occupational therapist, to evaluate him—and the earlier the bettter. Many kids with SPD never receive an accurate diagnosis as the condition can resemble other problems. SPD is often misdiagnosed as ADD/ADHD, a learning disability, or even pervasive developmental disorder. 

Treating SPD

While ADHD and SPD may present similarly, the medication and behavior-modification therapies that work for ADD/ADHD do not work for SPD. SPD treatment consists of working with an occupational therapist on a set of activities that help retrain the senses. Treatment may include a "sensory diet," in which the child is slowly introduced to activities in a gentle, fun way, in order to get used to a range of sensations.

Helpful Strategies

  • For the hyperactive, sensory-seeking child, have him help you carry the laundry basket, push the shopping cart or bring in the grocery bags from the car.
  • For the tactile-sensitive child, try finger-painting activities at the kitchen table. Bring shaving cream into the bathtub and let him draw pictures on the walls. 
  • If your child has a poor sense of space and balance, try swimming, horseback riding or jumping on a trampoline. 
  • Additional Resources

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