What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

It’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by competing conversations or flashing lights, but for children and adults with Sensory Processing Disorder, these sensations disrupt and overwhelm everyday life.

SPD impacts men and women of all ages and races, though it is most commonly diagnosed in childhood. Some experts believe that up to 10 percent of children experience some type of sensory processing challenge. On top of that, people with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and fragile X syndrome are much more likely to develop SPD.

Symptoms of SPD

Sensory integration is the process by which the brain processes information from our senses (touch, sight, hearing, taste, smell, as well as balance) so that we can respond appropriately to our environment.

For some people with sensory processing disorder, information reaching the senses often feels like an assault of competing stimuli. For others with SPD, outside stimuli are dulled, muting sights, sounds, and touch.

Most people with SPD display elements of both extremes, suffering from sensory overload at times and seeking stimulation at others. It’s not difficult to see how the symptoms of SPD – distractibility, the need for intense activity, problems with social interactions — could be mistaken for ADHD, but several symptoms are quite distinct:

  • Feelings that a shade is pulled over the outside world
  • Experiencing muted sights, sounds, and touch
  • Frequent feelings of sensory overload

Types of SPD

The three major categories of SPD include:

  • Sensory Modulation Disorder
  • Sensory Discrimination Disorder
  • Sensory-Based Motor Disorder

Sensory modulation disorder is the most common form of SPD. It indicates trouble regulating responses to stimulation. People with it are under or over responsive, since the nervous system does not know when to pay attention to or ignore stimuli. It leads to abnormal sensory seeking, or hiding from stimulation.

People with sensory discrimination disorder feel confusion about the sources of sensations. This can lead to trouble knowing where you are in space, clumsiness, trouble noticing hunger, or difficulty discriminating between letters and the sources of sounds.

Sensory-based motor disorder leads to trouble with tasks that require motor control like holding utensils, sitting up straight, and balancing. People with sensory processing disorder may have trouble with one or all of the categories in differing severity.

Inconsistent severity of symptoms can make SPD difficult to diagnose. Left untreated, SPD can lead sufferers to feel so overwhelmed that they isolate themselves to avoid over-stimulation. It can also lead to anxiety, secondary depression, social isolation, or trouble succeeding at school or work.


SPD can be a stand-alone disorder, or it may co-exist with other disorders, such as ADHD. Up to 60 percent of children with ADHD also suffer from symptoms of SPD. Lucy Jane Miller, Ph.D., director of the Sensory Processing Treatment and Research Center, in Denver, Colorado, has found that “more than half of children suspected to have ADHD had SPD or both conditions.”

Diagnosing SPD

Once you recognize the signs of SPD in you or your child, locate a knowledgeable professional – usually a trained occupational therapist — to perform an evaluation. And the earlier the better. Many people with SPD never receive an accurate diagnosis. Since its symptoms can resemble so many other neurological conditions, SPD is often misdiagnosed as ADHD, a learning disability, or even pervasive developmental disorder.

Treatment Options for SPD

Most individuals with SPD work with an occupational therapist on activities that help retrain the senses. Many therapists use a sensory integration (SI) approach that begins in a controlled, stimulating environment that challenges the senses without overwhelming the patient or feelings of failure. Over time, the goal is to extend the patient’s learned, appropriate responses developed within therapy to the world outside the clinic: home, school, and life.

Excerpted from “What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?” in ADDitude Magazine. Read the full article online for additional details on symptoms, how SPD is differentiated from sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), causes and treatments.

Source: ADDitude Magazine | What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?, https://www.additudemag.com/what-is-sensory-processing-disorder | Copyright © 1998 – 2023 WebMD LLC
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