Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) happens when the body has problems taking in information from the senses. SPD is a neurological disorder which happens when the brain fails to receive the sensory messages or process them appropriately.

If a child has SPD he will react in an extreme way or abnormally to a normal situation. So for example, a bus driving past us will not cause an adverse reaction to most, but for a child with hypersensitive hearing it may sound like a volcano and they may scream.

The 5 senses that we are all familiar with are vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste. These are what I call out ‘outside’ senses – they gather information outside of the body and go to the brain for processing. We also have 3 ‘inside’ senses: proprioception, which is being aware of your body and pressure you apply to things; vestibular balance helps you stay upright and prevents you from becoming dizzy or disorientated; and interoception is your internal digestion system.

Research tells us that around 1 in 20 children have some degree of SPD and some believe it may be as high as 1 in 6. Some symptoms seen in SPD are kids covering their ears (sounds are too loud), complaints of light being too bright and hurting the eyes, strong smells making them sick and if their touch sense is over reactive they will complain of tags feeling uncomfortable or haircuts being painful!

It is really important to note that many kids and adults have sensory quirks but they do not cause extreme anxiety or do not impact negatively on everyday function. This is not SPD. We usually see a cluster of ‘sensory problems’ in SPD and they make life difficult for the child.

About 90% of children with autism have sensory problems but children with other conditions may present with sensory issues too. SPD can be a stand-alone condition.

Our sensory systems, when working properly, are wonderful things. Warm bright sunshine, the feeling of sand in our toes, eating of yummy ice cream and listening to great music can be so pleasurable. A funfair merry-go-round or even a rollercoaster can be such fun!

Normally, the sensory systems gather information from the environment and send messages to the brain to process it so we can use that information to complete everyday tasks. All of the senses work smoothly and clearly together without much conscious thought from ourselves. Think about all of the senses used to do something really simple like pick up and drink a hot cup of tea.

The Senses in Action: Picking Up a Cup of Tea
If we pick up a cup of tea:

  • Our eyes see it
  • Our perception tells us how far away it is
  • Our proprioception or muscle sensors tell us how far to reach the cup
  • Our touch sensors tell us if it is too hot to pick up or if it is ok
  • Our brain sends messages to our hand muscles to bend our fingers around the cup
  • Our muscle sensors kick in again to tell us how much pressure to put on the cup so as not to drop it!
  • Then our brain tells our arm muscle to bend the elbow to bring it up to the mouth!
  • So many things need to happen at the same time for such a simple task!

For children with SPD there may well be a ‘traffic jam’ or ‘muddled messages’ coming to and from the brain and even the simplest of activities – writing, catching a ball, using a knife and fork, even sitting down on a chair- can become a really difficult job that needs a HUGE amount of effort and concentration.

ALWAYS REMEMBER: these kids have to concentrate 10 times harder- and WORK 10 times harder than the average child to make even the simplest of tasks happen whether they have sensory issues or both SPD & dyspraxia.