understanding sensory processing disorder

Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder

Hey Mommies! You may have heard the term “sensory processing disorder” (SPD) before. Whether you have a child or know a child who has this, have heard it used online, or by other parents, SPD is starting to become a well known term. But what is it exactly??

Every person has sensory needs and “issues”. Some people twirl their hair, bite their pencil or nails, shake their leg while sitting, chew gum during lectures, get overwhelmed in groups and prefer quiet time, or can’t get enough of being around others.

Some people love to cuddle and snuggle. Others can’t take someone touching them.

Some people hate nails on a chalkboard (Me! Makes me squirm just thinking about it), the feeling of cotton balls, textures of certain foods, and so on.

All of these examples can be very typical sensory related responses and issues that any person could have.

Every person has their own sensory “stims”, sensory sensitivities, sensory avoidances, sensory seeking behaviors, and so on. However, most people are able to regulate their sensory systems and needs on their own, and go through everyday life without any issues.

A lot of times you do things you aren’t even aware of, and it’s a way to help stimulate and/or regulate your sensory system.

So when do these little sensory issues become sensory processing disorder??

Sensory processing disorder comes when a person has severe reactions to sensory input or stimulations or requires so much extra sensory input that it becomes difficult or nearly impossible to get through everyday life.

For example, most people are able to tolerate the buzzing of lights, the ticking of a clock, the sound of air coming from a vent, and listening to someone give a lecture. Typically, people filter out the light background sounds of the lights, clock, and air, and are able to only focus on the person speaking.

However, a person with sensory processing disorder may be unable to filter out all the background sounds to focus on the lecture. The sound of the lights may sound like a bee buzzing in their ear. The ticking of the clock could sound like a hammer pounding, and the blow of the air could sound like a hurricane. This would make it very difficult to solely focus on the speaker.

Another example is that, to a person with a normal sensory system, a light touch on the arm or back may produce a little tickle. They may scratch the itch the tickle produces or just wait a second and move on.

That same light touch on a person with sensory processing disorder may feel like someone just jabbed them with a needle or rubbed sand paper down their back. This would be a much more overwhelming and upsetting situation.

The body of a person with sensory processing disorder simply does not process and respond to sensory input and stimulation the same way a body of someone without the disorder does.

People with sensory processing disorder are typically unable to regulate their sensory system with simple adjustments and require more extreme measures to make sure their sensory system is able to process and function with the input it receives.

Sometimes they require less stimulation, sometimes more, or sometimes both depending on the sensory system involved. (sight, sound, touch, taste, vestibular, proprioception)

A person with SPD may be hypersensitive to touch and squirm at a light pat on the back, but they may be able to stimulate their vestibular system by riding a roller coaster 10 times in a row and hardly feel any effect.

As a pediatric occupational therapist, I know it can be difficult to fully understand sensory processing disorder and what it all means.

It can be difficult for parents to understand what their child may be going through. It can be difficult for them to explain it to their friends and family, and it can be difficult for people without any experience with SPD to understand why a child with SPD acts the way they do.

I hope these examples and explanation give you a better understanding of sensory processing disorder and what’s going on with a child or person identified with SPD.

By: Emily Bettis, MOT/L


Emily Bettis, MOT/L is a pediatric occupational therapist and mother. She has been working with children birth-5 since 2008 and has been a mother since 2013. Emily is the founder and author HeyMommies.com