Sensory Processing Disorder

When a Sensory Sensitivity Throws Your Child Out of Sync

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

An overwhelmed mom relaxes for a minute to give her daughter a hug.
An overwhelmed mom relaxes for a minute to give her daughter a hug.

What Is a Sensory Sensitivity?

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

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is the inability to process information received through the senses. Sensory 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.

Symptoms of a Sensory Sensitivity

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.

[Take This Test: Sensory Processing Disorder in Children]

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

  • ADHD
  • 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.

Treating a Sensory Sensitivity

Treatment for ADHD involves behavior management and stimulant medication. 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.

[How to Treat Sensory Processing Disorder in Children]

If you are pretty certain that your child has a sensory sensitivity 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 (

Managing a Sensory Sensitivity

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.

It helps the child process all his senses, so they work together.

When the child actively engages in activities that provide the intensity, duration, and quality of sensation that his central nervous system craves, his behavior improves. Adaptive
behavior leads to better sensory integration. As a result, perceptions, learning, competence, and self-confidence improve.

It helps the child now, when he needs the assistance to function smoothly.

Treatment helps him build a strong foundation for the future when life will be more demanding and complex. A child does not grow out of SPD, but grows into it.

It helps the child develop social skills.

The out-of-sync child lacks the skills to play — and play is every child’s primary occupation. Without treatment, SPD interferes with a child’s friendships.

It gives the child the tools to become a more efficient learner.

It improves the child’s emotional well-being.

A child who believes she is incompetent will become an adult with low self-esteem.

It improves family relationships.

As a child responds to sensory challenges with more self-control, home life becomes more pleasant.

Most children with SPD improve when their parents take action. The journey may be long. It may be expensive. It will be frustrating at times. But the journey will also be wonderful and exciting, as you begin to free your child from the prison of SPD.

[Download This Overview of Sensory Processing Disorder]

From The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder, by CAROL STOCK KRANOWITZ, M.A. Published by arrangement with Perigee Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2005 by Skylight Press and Carol Stock Kranowitz.