Guest Post: Sensory Processing Disorder

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I am pleased to have Occupational Therapist, Abby Brayton-Chung, as my guest post blogger today.  Several of the children I work with suffer from Sensory Processing Disorder and it sure can be challenging.  Please welcome Abby and visit her blog if you have any questions about this topic!  

October is National Sensory Awareness Month. Many of you have probably heard of sensory processing or maybe you have been told that your child has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), but what exactly is all of this talk about sensory processing?

What is sensory processing?

Each individual’s nervous system takes in and processes information received from the senses. The brain then organizes that information into meaningful information. For example, if you see a blue car, your eyes take in the information and your brain makes it meaningful. Your eyes see the image and your brain tells you that it is a car that you are seeing, and more specifically a blue car, not a brown truck or a red motorcycle.

What are the senses?

There are five senses that most people are familiar with: tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory. There are also two hidden senses: proprioceptive and vestibular. Some occupational therapists also include an eighth sense, internal processing. Below I’ll give a brief overview of each of these senses and how problems with each might present in children.

Tactile (touch): This sense gives us information about what is touching our body, such as the temperature, texture, weight, or size. Problems with tactile input may present as sensitivity to clothing textures, not wanting to get hands messy, or resistance to self-care tasks, such as toothbrushing or hair brushing.

Visual (sight): This sense gives us information about what we see in our environment, such as the color, size, location, or distance between items. Problems with visual input may present as difficulty copying written information from the board or sensitivity to fluorescent lights.

Auditory (sound): This sense provides information about what we hear in our environment, including discriminating between different sounds. Problems with auditory input may present as sensitivity to loud or unexpected sounds, difficulty maintaining attention in noisy environments, or appearing to not hear name called.

Olfactory (smell): This sense provides information about odors in the air. Problems with olfactory input may present as sensitivity to perfumes, lotions, or shampoos, smelling food before tasting it, or gagging with certain food smells.

Gustatory (taste): This sense provides taste information about items that enter the mouth. Problems with gustatory input may present as selective eating patterns, gagging on certain foods, or preference for either really strong or very bland flavors.

Vestibular (body motion): This sense gives us information from our inner ear about how our body is moving and maintaining balance. Problems with vestibular input may present as avoiding swings and other playground equipment that require the feet leaving the ground, becoming car sick easily, or resistance to tipping head back to wash hair.

Proprioceptive (body position): This sense gives us information from our muscles and joints on our body position and where our arms and legs are in relation to our body. Problems with proprioceptive input may present as appearing clumsy, climbing or hanging on furniture, falling or crashing into things intentionally, w-sitting or leaning on elbows when sitting at a desk or table.
Internal Processing refers to how the body regulates internal body functions, such as body temperature and digestion. Problems with internal processing may present as difficulty with toilet training or feeling hunger.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

While not yet recognized as a formal diagnosis by the American Academy of Pediatrics, SPD is a term that is often used to describe children who have difficulty with processing sensory information from their environment into meaningful information. According to Delaney (2008), signs of Sensory Processing Disorder may include:

  • Overly sensitive to touch, movement, sights or sounds
  • Underreactive to touch, movement, sights or sounds
  • High activity level or unusually low activity level
  • Difficulty with transitions
  • Clumsiness
  • Impulsiveness
  • Poor body awareness
  • Difficulty calming down
  • Easily distracted
  • Delays in speech. language, or motor skills

What are the treatments for Sensory Processing Disorder?

There is no medication treatment for SPD. Symptoms of SPD are treated by occupational therapists trained in sensory-based or sensory integrative therapy. Therapy will include parent education on strategies to incorporate into your child’s daily routine to assist with sensory regulation.

What are the outcomes?

In recent months there has been controversy surrounding the use of Sensory Integration Therapies. In May, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement recommending that Sensory Processing Disorder not be used as a diagnosis. Further, the statement indicates that parents should be aware of the limited research to support sensory based occupational therapy interventions (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2012).

With that said, based on my clinical experience, I feel that sensory-based occupational therapy intervention can be very beneficial to children displaying sensory symptoms. I have seen first-hand how occupational therapy has improved the lives of children with sensory processing challenges. With occupational therapy intervention, children and families can learn strategies to help children maintain a state of regulation, helping the child be more successful at school, in the home, and in the community.

How do sensory difficulties affect speech and language?

Children who have difficulty with processing sensory information may demonstrate delays in speech and language. These difficulties may include difficulty discriminating sounds due to an auditory processing challenge, making understanding speech difficult or delayed oral motor skills due to tactile or proprioceptive processing difficulties, which could delay speech production (Delaney, 2008).

What can I do if I think my child has sensory processing?

Speak to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns and request a referral to an occupational therapist with experience in treating sensory processing disorders. The occupational therapist will evaluate your child’s skills and ability to process sensory information to determine the need for further therapeutic services.

Where can I go to learn more about SPD?

Visit the SPD Foundation at

Recommended Reading:
Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Biel, MA, OTR & Nancy Peske
Sensational Kids by Lucy Jane Miller, PhD, OTR
Sensory Processing Disorder Answer Book by Tara Delaney, MS, OTR/L

American Academy of Pediatrics (2012). Policy statement: Sensory integration therapies for children with developmental and behavioral disorders. Pediatrics, 129(6) 1186-1189.
Delaney, T. (2008) Sensory Processing Disorder Answer Book. Naperville: Sourcebooks.

Abby Brayton-Chung, MS, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist with five years of experience evaluating and treating children ages birth to twenty-two. Her work experience includes school based practice, early intervention and feeding therapy.  Abby recently moved from Southern California to New England, where she is enjoying the changing seasons. Abby currently specializes in providing occupational therapy services to students with language and learning disabilities, including sensory processing disorder.  Some of Abby’s favorite occupations include running, hiking, getting lost in a good book, traveling, and eating good food. Abby blogs about her experiences as a pediatric occupational therapist at Notes from A Pediatric Occupational Therapist.

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  1. says

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time! My middle child has this disorder, and we see his doctor about it on the first Saturday in November. We’re not sure exactly which area is effected, though I have my guesses, and we’re struggling with ways to help him in his learning. He struggles with being distracted, retaining all the details, reading/writing and sometimes math. He’s in 3rd grade now and been in Title 1 (a precursor to Special Education) since Kindergarten. Thank you so much for the extra information! I can do some more research before going to talk to his doctor which allows me to ask intelligent questions. I always love to be able to do that. :) Thanks again!
    Julie Moore recently posted..Leaves and Acorns (Soy, Wheat, Fish and Nut-Free, Can Be Milk and Egg-Free)My Profile

  2. NOELLE says

    My three year old daughter definitely has a sound sensory issue. When we go places and it gets too loud (school gym, Monkey Joes, even the county fair), she covers her ears, cries and begs to go home. How do we deal with this? I am worried about what is going to happen in 2 years when she starts elementary school.

    • says

      I would try some earplugs – something even as simple as fun pink headphones. If she enjoys music (at a normal level), you could get her a little walkman or ipod (I know she’s kind of young but she’d probably still do well with it) and allow her to put on the headphones and listen to music when she’s overwhelmed. You may also be able to overwhelm a different sense and that will take the focus away from noise…I actually use noise (loud music via headphones) when my daughter gets overwhelmed by things. Maybe you could get her something tactile-stimulating (like a taggy blanket) and encourage her to rub that and it may help her brain focus on the texture so that the noise is not as overwhelming. My daughter also chews gum to help her but 3 is probably a little young for that – maybe eating crunchy carrot sticks or pretzels – the noise she makes may help reduce the outside noise. Good luck!
      Jill recently posted..Disney World: Part 1 – Sensory Seeking and ADHDMy Profile

  3. says

    This is a good article about sensory processing in general but it seems very one-dimensional towards sensory avoiding. My daughter is a sensory seeker and has pretty much the opposite response to all these categories. I’d love for the public to be better informed about this than to just think my child is wild when really she is just getting over-stimulated and needs certain sensory input to calm and center her. She typically has a piece of fleece that she smells when she needs to calm down. When she is overwhelmed, loud music via headphones also helps her get control of herself by overwhelming her auditory sense and allowing her other senses to slow down.
    Jill recently posted..Disney World: Part 1 – Sensory Seeking and ADHDMy Profile


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