Sensory Processing Disorder

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder that affects behavior, socialization, and ultimately learning in 5% - 16% of “average” children and 40% - 80% of children with other neurodevelopmental disorders (1). Some living with SPD are over-stimulated by the world around them, while others seem to crave certain types of sensation.  In either case, the brain is not processing information from the environment accurately. Thus their view of the world is different from ours, and their resulting movement, behavior, or attention level may seem inappropriate to the rest of us. However, their reaction may be very appropriate to what they’re seeing and experiencing. The cause of this disorder is still unknown.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is actually one of the better named conditions because the meaning is in the name.  The brains of people with SPD cannot process the sensory information from their environment accurately. These senses include the basic five: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, as well as two lesser known, but very important senses called proprioception and vestibular sensation.

Proprioception is the sense coming from receptors in our muscles, joints and skin that send the brain information about the position of different body parts. The vestibular sense is involved with where our head is relative to gravity, and people often refer to it as the sense that helps us create balance.  This is true to a certain extent, but many factors comprise efficient balancing. In fact, the accuracy of proprioception has a significant effect on balance as well.

boy with headphones

Our brains depend on precise processing of sensory information to create maps of our body, our environment, and how we fit into the world.  If you want to pick up a glass of water, you need to know where your hand is on your body, where your hand is relative to the glass, and where the glass is on the table. Accurate processing of information is also vital to how we interact in our world socially and behaviorally.  When our brain isn’t breaking down the stimulation properly, our senses can’t interpret the information correctly.

Imagine the television being so loud that it hurts your ears, day in and day out. For people living with SPD, they are experiencing these sensory overloads constantly. Perhaps noises are louder, normally pleasant smells are overwhelming, food and clothing textures are unbearable. It’s irritating and exhausting living with these feelings. When your brain is constantly over or under stimulated by sensations, a meltdown or tantrum may seemingly come out of nowhere.

The way to create better sensory processing, as well as lessen behavioral issues, requires improving the processing in the brain.  This doesn’t mean children don’t need boundaries and discipline, but we can’t solve the problem until we address the cause and the cause lies in the way the brain processes our environment (2, 3).

Signs and Symptoms

There are many types of symptoms that a person living with SPD may experience.  


  • Touching
  • Noise and sounds
  • Busy environments (sound and visual)
  • Strong smells
  • Movement (such as spinning or rocking)
  • Texture of clothing
  • Texture and taste of foods


  • Motion sickness
  • Poor balance
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Poor coordination

Often SPD is broken down into categories and sub-categories of the diagnosis.  These classifications are based on the types of movement, behaviors, or signs/symptoms. If you have SPD you may fall into one or multiple of these three general categories and five sub-categories discussed by Carol Kranowitz, M.A. (2) and Lucy Jane Miller, PHD and her co-authors (3)  Follow the links to learn more about the various sub-categories of SPD:

Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD)

Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD)

Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD)

Little girl screaming at home with her ears covered by hands

How is SPD typically diagnosed and treated?

Sensory Processing Disorder is often diagnosed with other disorders like ADHD or Autism, but it can also stand alone.  Typically, the diagnosis is based on observation by the parent and a healthcare practitioner (typically an occupational therapist).  Observing behaviors and how they relate to the five senses, plus proprioception and the vestibular system, can allow a professional to see which senses children struggle with.  Some basic testing of the senses may also be performed.

Typically treatment includes exposing the child to the sensations they struggle to process.  The idea is that the brain will be forced to better interpret and process these sensations after repeated exposure. For instance, a child may crave spinning because it has a calming effect. This child would likely be diagnosed with a vestibular processing issue.  During therapy sessions, the child may be encouraged to spin or swing to give their brain more stimulation. The program created for a child’s sensory deficits is often referred to as a “sensory diet”, because the brain is being fed “stimulation” with the hope that it will adapt and process better.

The Innova approach to diagnosis and treatment

Just knowing which sense is affected and what side of the body or brain is affected only goes so far.  That’s why we thoroughly test so we can prescribe the most specific therapies for your child. For example, when we prescribe spinning (rotational therapy), we do it in a specific direction at a specific speed because this type of precision addresses the issue. We have patients that get better with right turns and worse with left.  Sometimes it’s the other way around. Do you want to make sure that your doctor looks at all of the factors and not just identify what are the “problem senses”?

We go deeper with our assessment of your child. Your child’s brain function will be assessed through a thorough physical exam, eye-movement testing, specific balance and posture measurements, observation, a thorough history from the patient and their loved ones, and a review of their medical records.  Similar to other assessments, we identify the sensations that may be troubling an individual with SPD, but what makes the difference is we find the areas of the brain specific to each individual patient that may be causing these processing errors.

We often see deficits indicating vestibular dysfunction in our patients, but we don’t stop there. We know that this can either be an inner ear issue or a central (brain) issue. If it’s a brain issue, which area of the brain isn’t processing?  If it’s an inner ear issue, the problem could live in either ear. So, if your child has vestibular deficits, there are multiple areas that could be causing the problem. We go the extra mile to test these individual areas.


  1. Ahn R. R., Miller L. J., Milberger S., McIntosh D. N. (2004). Prevalence of parents’ perceptions of sensory processing disorders among kindergarten childrenAm. J. Occup. Ther. 58 287–293.
  2. Kranowitz CS, The Out-Of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Group; 2005.
  3. Miller LJ, Anzalone ME, Lane SJ, Cermak SA, Osten ET. Concept evolution in sensory integration: a proposed nosology for diagnosis. Am J Occup Ther. 2007 Mar-Apr;61(2):135-40.   

Start looking beyond the senses

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