What Is Sensory Processing Disorder in Children?

Mother supporting her daughter in conversation outside, showcasing understanding in dealing with Sensory Processing Disorder in Children.

Emma always seemed overwhelmed in crowded places. Loud noises made her cover her ears and cry. Her parents hoped she would grow out of it. 

At school, Emma struggled to concentrate. Her teachers noticed she was easily distracted by the slightest sounds.

During a parent-teacher conference, her teacher suggested that Emma might have sensory issues

This led them to research sensory processing disorder, discovering a new understanding of their daughter’s behavior.

Understanding Emma’s challenges was just the start. They wanted to help her navigate a world that felt too intense. 

Sensory integration dysfunction, a complex condition in children, requires patience and empathy to manage effectively. But with knowledge and support, families can find pathways to cope and thrive. 

Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder in Children

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) in kids refers to the difficulty in processing information from the environment, received through the senses, in a way that allows them to react appropriately. 

Imagine you’re in a busy, brightly lit supermarket with music playing over the PA system. For most people, filtering out irrelevant sensory information to focus on shopping is automatic. 

This filtering process doesn’t work effectively for kids with SPD, leading to overwhelming experiences or under-reactivity to sensory stimuli. 

Symptoms of SPD vary, with some children feeling bombarded by ordinary sights and sounds, resulting in tantrums or withdrawal. 

Others might appear clumsy, struggle with fine motor skills, or fail to notice when their name is called. 

This condition significantly impacts daily activities⁠ , from wearing certain fabrics that feel like sandpaper on their skin to facing challenges in school where the buzz of fluorescent lights disrupts focus. 

These kids can become isolated without understanding and support, affecting their social interactions and academic performance. Recognizing SPD symptoms is the first step towards helping them navigate their world more comfortably.

Types of Sensory Processing Difficulties

Children with sensory processing difficulties navigate a world that can feel overwhelming or insufficiently stimulating. They fall primarily into two categories: over-sensitive and under-sensitive. 

– The Over-sensitive Child

Kids who are over-sensitive experience an excess of stimulation. A light touch might seem harsh, ordinary sounds can seem loud, and every day bright lights might appear blinding. They might retreat, cover their ears, or become upset in what appears to be a calm environment. 

– The Under-sensitive Child

On the flip side, under-sensitive children seek more sensory input. They might not notice when they are touched, have a high pain tolerance, or desire intense physical activities. 

Their craving for more sensations can lead to inappropriate behaviors such as constantly touching people or objects and a fascination with lights and spinning objects. 

Both sensitivities present unique challenges in perception and interaction with the world.

Recognizing SPD Signs in Children

You might wonder if your child’s responses to everyday stimuli are typical. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) in children can be subtle or starkly apparent, depending on the child. 

Recognizing the symptoms of sensory processing disorder is your first step toward understanding and support. Kids with SPD may show a variety of behaviors that can be confusing. 

For example, your child might react unusually to sounds, lights, or touch that seem normal to others. They could either avoid these stimuli or seek them excessively.

Common signs include unusually bothered by noise, like a vacuum cleaner or loud music. Your child might also dislike being touched or avoiding certain textures in foods and clothing. 

Difficulty with balance and coordination is another red flag. This can make tasks like tying shoes or riding a bike challenging. 

Conversely, some children may crave intense sensory experiences. They might constantly touch people or things, or they could have an unusually high pain tolerance.

Watch for these behaviors to help you and professionals identify sensory processing challenges. Early recognition is key. 

With support, kids can learn to manage their responses to sensory inputs more effectively, leading to a smoother path in daily activities and social interactions.

Causes of SPD

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) in children often stems from a complex blend of factors. 

– Neurological Condition

One significant cause is neurological conditions. The brain’s wiring affects how sensory signals are received and interpreted in these cases. This can make the environment seem overwhelming or underwhelming to a child. 

– Developmental Disorder

Another key factor is developmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, which frequently coincide with SPD. These conditions can amplify sensory processing challenges, making everyday situations more difficult for the child.

– Environmental Factors

Environmental influences also play a crucial role. Exposure to certain environments can trigger or worsen sensory processing issues for some children. This includes places with high sensory input levels, such as busy classrooms or loud public spaces. 

– Biological Factors

Family history and genetics may increase the risk, suggesting a hereditary component to SPD. 

Even factors such as premature birth, low birth weight, brain injury, or birth complications can increase the chance of having sensory problems.

By understanding these causes and risk factors, parents and caregivers can better support children facing these challenges.

The Impact on Your Child’s Education

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can significantly impact a child’s education. Kids with SPD may find classroom environments overwhelming, leading to a hard time focusing and participating. 

– Sensory Overload

The constant barrage of sensory information can be distracting or distressing, such as: 

  • The hum of fluorescent lights
  • Shuffle of papers
  • Texture of their chair 
  • Screeching of chalk on the chalkboard
  • Excessively noisy lunchroom and gym

– Fine Motor Skills

You might notice your child struggling with fine motor skills tasks such as writing or cutting with scissors. 

– Gross Motor Skills

They may also struggle with gross motor skills, affecting their ability to engage in physical education or navigate the school environment confidently. 

– Group Activities

Group activities, a staple of many classrooms, present another challenge. For a child sensitive to noise or wary of physical contact, working closely with others can be a source of anxiety.

The Impact on Social Interactions

When a child has sensory processing problems, it impacts their social life in several ways. 

Kids with this condition might find playground noises overwhelming or struggle with the texture of certain foods at a friend’s birthday party. 

These sensory sensitivities can lead to them avoiding social situations, making it hard for them to form strong friendships. You might notice they get anxious before gatherings or refuse to participate in group activities.

But there’s hope. 

Start by slowly introducing them to new environments, allowing them to adjust at their own pace. Provide them with tools, like noise-canceling headphones or fidget toys, that help manage their sensory input. 

Encourage small, controlled playdates with understanding friends who can offer a supportive and less stimulating environment. 

Lastly, communication is critical. Teach your child to express their needs and comfort levels, empowering them to navigate social scenarios more confidently.

Official Diagnosis and Evaluation

How do you go about getting your child an official diagnosis? Diagnosing SPD involves a series of evaluations and assessments conducted by professionals, usually starting with observations by you or your child’s caregiver or teacher. 

If sensory issues are suspected, the next step is to consult a pediatrician who can refer you to specialists. This often means seeing an occupational therapist who has experience with sensory processing challenges.

Occupational therapists use various assessments to evaluate how your child responds to sensory input. They look at responses to touch, sound, visual cues, and movement. 

These evaluations are designed to pinpoint over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to sensory input. 

They might also observe how your child copes with new sensory experiences or how they manage sensory input in everyday activities.

Each child is unique, so the assessment process is highly individualized. 

Reports from these evaluations are crucial in creating a tailored intervention plan. This step gives insight into what specific therapies or strategies could support your child’s sensory integration. 

It’s a collaborative process where you, as a parent or caregiver, play an essential role in sharing observations and insights about your child.

While these challenges may seem daunting, remember that with the proper support and accommodations, children with SPD can thrive in an educational setting. 

Open communication with your child’s teacher  and school staff about your child’s needs is key. Together, you can create a learning environment where your child feels safe, supported, and capable of achieving their potential.

Effective Treatment Options

Treating sensory processing disorder in children often involves a blend of therapies and interventions tailored to each child’s unique needs. 

– Occupational Therapy

One common approach is occupational therapy, focusing on helping children improve their sensory processing abilities and daily functioning. 

– Physical therapy

Physical therapy might also play a role, particularly for children who struggle with motor skills. This can complement sensory integration strategies by strengthening the physical body and enhancing coordination and balance.

– Speech Therapy

Some families succeed with speech therapy if the disorder affects the child’s communication skills. 

– Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Similarly, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help children manage the anxiety that often accompanies sensory processing issues, teaching them coping strategies and how to navigate their sensory experiences.

– Accommodations 

Finally, creating a supportive home and school environment is crucial. Simple adjustments, like using noise-canceling headphones or providing a quiet space for breaks, can significantly affect a child’s ability to cope with sensory challenges.

– Sensory Integration Therapy

Anna Jean Ayres was an American occupational therapist and educational psychologist who got to the root of sensory processing disorders in children. 

This therapeutic approach rests on the belief that by exposing kids to sensory stimuli in a structured, repetitive way, their nervous system can learn to react more efficiently to sensory input over time. 

The goal is to enhance a child’s ability to process and respond to the sensory experiences they encounter daily.

The core of this therapy involves fun, engaging activities tailored to each child’s unique sensory needs. 

These acticities might include: 

  • Swinging
  • Playing in a ball pit
  • Tactile activities like handling Play-Doh 

Each sensory activity is designed for enjoyment and to challenge the child’s sensory system in a safe, supportive environment.

Evidence shows that when children with sensory processing issues undergo Sensory Integration Therapy, many experience significant improvements. 

They often show better motor skills, are less overwhelmed by sensory experiences, and demonstrate improved social interactions and learning abilities. 

While it’s not a one-size-fits-all remedy, for many children, Sensory Integration Therapy is a pivotal part of their progress and developmental growth.

The Role of Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists play a critical role in supporting children with sensory processing disorders. They assess each child’s unique sensory needs and challenges, developing tailored strategies to help them navigate their sensory world more effectively. 

Their techniques often involve sensory integration therapy, which engages children in activities that challenge their sensory processing in a safe, structured environment. 

Through play and specialized equipment, therapists help children build tolerance to sensory inputs, improve motor skills, and enhance their overall ability to respond adaptively to sensory experiences. 

This personalized approach not only aids in sensory regulation but also boosts confidence and independence in children, making everyday tasks and interactions more manageable. 

The expertise of these therapists provides crucial support, helping children lead fuller, more comfortable lives.

Supporting Children in Everyday Life

Supporting a child with sensory disorders involves adapting daily routines to meet their unique needs. Begin by observing your child’s behavior closely. 

Note what overwhelms them or brings them comfort. Use this knowledge to create a soothing environment at home. Soft lighting, quiet spaces, and snug clothing can make a big difference.

In educational settings, communicate your child’s needs to teachers and staff. Suggest implementing sensory breaks, offering fidget tools, or using noise-canceling headphones during noisy periods. 

Collaboration is vital to ensuring your child feels supported at home and school.

Introduce various sensory activities to help your child explore and understand their preferences. Sand play, water tables, or playdough are excellent for tactile exploration. 

Activities that involve jumping, swinging, or climbing can help with proprioceptive input.

Always celebrate small victories and progress. Check out these ideas on how to celebrate your child’s success

Acknowledge your child’s efforts in navigating their sensory world. This fosters a positive self-image and encourages them to continue exploring and adapting.

Empowering Parents and Caregivers

Supporting a child with SPD starts with understanding. It would help if you grasped the basics of what this condition involves. Look for books, websites, and support groups that explain sensory issues. Arm yourself with the knowledge to better advocate for your child. Education forms the foundation of your action plan.

Next, create a sensory-friendly environment at home. This means adjusting textures, lighting, and noise levels to make your child comfortable. Each child is unique, so observe and learn what works best for your little one.

Communication is key. Talk to your child’s educators about their sensory needs. Share strategies that help at home and could be applied in the classroom. This collaborative approach ensures your child’s needs are met across all environments.

Seek professional help if needed. Occupational therapists specializing in sensory integration therapy can offer personalized strategies and interventions. They play a crucial role in managing sensory processing issues.

Finally, empower your child by teaching them about their sensory preferences. Help them recognize and communicate their needs. This not only builds self-awareness but also fosters independence and self-advocacy skills.

What Next? 

Remember, navigating SPD is a journey that involves patience, understanding, and consistent effort. 

Adopting a holistic approach that includes professional support, educational advocacy, home adaptations, and open communication can create a supportive and nurturing environment that empowers your child to thrive despite sensory processing challenges. 

Do you have a child that needs one on one assistance?  

We offer one-on-one special education tutoring that can be done from anywhere the student is! Why? Because our special education experts conduct their sessions online!

Get started with a free consultation today!

Additional Resources



Mother supporting her daughter in conversation outside, showcasing understanding in dealing with Sensory Processing Disorder in Children.
Does your child have sensory issues? Learn the signs, causes, and how to support sensory processing disorder in children.
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Shannah Holt

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