What is Sensory Processing Disorder?


Submitted by Hartley Steiner

Recently I have seen a rise in the number of articles, Facebook posts, and even tweets claiming to define what Sensory Processing Disorder is. This should be good news, and it is -- mostly.  But, some of them are full of misinformation.

HartleyAlthough I am thankful that anyone wants to help spread awareness, it frustrates me personally that these people could very well be doing more harm than good. I have dedicated such a large portion of my life to spreading awareness that will hopefully benefit kids like mine all over our country and arguably the world, that I would really like to see people get good, solid and accurate information. Wouldn’t you?

It is with that goal in mind – the goal to educate and help – that I am taking my personal stab at answering the increasingly popular question, “What is Sensory Processing Disorder?”  My answer, and this article, will be specifically geared towards helping parents with SPD kids prepare a response for the dozens of strangers (and even family members) who might stare or judge us every day.  We are on the front lines of this disorder, and I believe have the highest stake in making sure that the message being sent about Sensory Processing Disorder is complete and accurate.

Now, I’d like to start with a few myth busting points before we go any deeper so we can all start fresh.

“SPD is on the Autism Spectrum” or “SPD is a mild form of Autism” – FALSE. Although a significant portion of kids with ASD do have sensory issues (estimates range as high as 85%), the opposite is not true. Many children with SPD do not have ASD. So, to recap, SPD is NOT on the Autism Spectrum.

“They are trying to get SPD added to the Autism Spectrum in the DSM” -- FALSE. The work being spearheaded by the SPD Foundation and Dr. Lucy Jane Miler is to get SPD recognized as a ‘stand alone disorder’ in the DSM-IV. You can find more info on their site by clicking here.

“SPD just means that a child doesn’t like loud noises” – FALSE. SPD is not just a single symptom, nor is it about 'sensory preferences'.  Children with SPD have sensory differences severe enough to affect their social and academic development.  It is much more complex than 'not liking loud noises'.  And, although children with SPD can avoid sensory input, they can also seek sensory input.

“SPD is the new ADD” – FALSE. I am not going to combat the theory that we as a country (or society in general) have become increasingly consumed by labels, because I agree.  However, I would like to say for the record, Sensory Processing Disorder is real.  Just ask any of the thousands of families that read my blog every month, this is a true health issue that needs to be recognized so that these children and families can get the help they need.

“SPD affects all 5 senses” -- INACCURATE. This is probably my biggest pet peeve. We have 7 senses – SEVEN SENSES!! Touch, Taste, Smell, Hearing, Sight, Vestibular and Proprioception. If you are reading anything (blog, tweet, Facebook, article, newspaper, etc) and they say that SPD affects 5 senses – STOP reading. If they do not know at a minimum that there are 7 senses, this person is not an expert.

Now, let’s get to a real and workable definition.

The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation’s website says the following:

“Sensory processing (sometimes called "sensory integration" or SI) is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.”

Let’s break that down so that we can get to a simple, easy to remember and crazy-easy to understand definition.

“…the way the nervous system receives messages…” -- this is referring to the messages received from all seven senses and how they are conveyed to the brain through the nervous system. The brain is the key component to the nervous system, as that is where the ‘processing’ occurs. By ‘processing’, we are in very basic terms referring to whether or not the brain ‘understands’ those signals. When the brain misinterprets the meaning of those signals, and can’t process them appropriately, it leads to an inability to turn them into appropriate motor and behavior responses.

“…appropriate motor and behavior responses…” – 'appropriate' here refers to the assumed way that a child should respond – if something is too loud, they should pull their ear back, if something is quiet, they shouldn't scream it is too loud. The word ‘motor’ refers to a physical response – how your body moves as a result of the information from the brain, and then ‘behavior’ how the child continues to respond (over or under reactions). Example: Loud unexpected BOOM! Kid cringes and covers his ears (motor), then screams and runs away (behavior).

I want to pause here to be sure that everyone knows there are three types of Sensory Processing Difficulties: Type I; Sensory Modulation Disorder, Type II; Sensory Based Motor Disorder and Type III; Sensory Discrimination Disorder. For the purpose of this post, which is simple understanding of SPD and increased ability to communicate what SPD is as a way to help spread awareness and understanding for our children, I am not going to go into them. You can find their definitions here.

Now that we all are on the same page with the formal information, let’s move on to the analogy that I find most helpful when discussing SPD with others, from the SPDF’s website:

“A. Jean Ayres, PhD likened SPD to a neurological ‘traffic jam’ that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.”

Are you familiar with A. Jean Ayres? She is credited as being the pioneer for Sensory Processing dating back to the 1960’s. Her work is the foundation for current research and the modern understanding of SPD.

Now, on to how you and I can actually use these definitions for something useful: A 30 second sound bite.

This is what I use most often when talking to those around me who really don’t have the attention span to hear more, or when I have a time limit like when I am being interviewed (Radio/TV where my total spot might be 2-3 minutes, click here for an example).

It is also super helpful at the grocery store when my son’s need to touch everything on the aisle results in a virtual disaster or when he insists on swinging from the railings at the checkout counter. Or, at the playground when he seems to be consumed with pushing down some sweet and small little girl simply because she is too close to him, or even at my home while celebrating some holiday where my son is wound up like a top and crashing into everyone - head first into their butt -- while giggling nonstop.  Like me, I trust you will find many uses for the 30 second sound bite.  Here it is:

Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological disorder that is like a virtual traffic jam in the brain. The information from all seven senses is misinterpreted which causes my child to often act inappropriately.”

Obviously you don’t need to memorize my version – and it can be shorter or longer as necessary -- and said in many different ways.

The key points that are important to communicate when talking to someone about SPD are:

1. SPD is a neurological condition (not a behavior issue)

2. There are 7 senses

3. Information gets misinterpreted

4. Sensory issues cause my child to act the way he/she does

I feel when I cover these four areas I am most likely to accomplish my two main goals when talking to anyone:

1. Help them understand my child and his behavior

2. Spread SPD awareness

I hope that you find this information helpful for both your practical understanding of what Sensory Processing Disorder is and so I can add you as another person who can help me combat the intensely mis-informed, however well-intentioned, people out there.

Our kids need understanding – which starts with making sure we are providing solid accurate information people can use.

So, here’s to all of you raising a SPD kiddo and spreading the word!

For more information on Sensory Processing Disorder I recommend the following books:

  1. The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder by Dr. Roya Ostovar  
  2. Sensational Kids:  Hope and Help for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder, by Lucy Jane Miller Ph.D
  3. The Out of Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz


ABOUT the Author:

Hartley Steiner lives in the Seattle area with her husband and their three sons, two of which are on the spectrum. Hartley is the award winning author of the SPD Children’s book This is Gabriel Making Sense of School, a contributing writer for the SPD Foundation's blog, S.I. Focus Magazine and Autism Spectrum Quarterly.  Hartley chronicles the never ending chaos that is her life on the blog Hartley’s Life With 3 Boys. When she isn’t writing, or dealing with a meltdown, she enjoys spending time in the company of other adults preferably with good food and even better wine.


#22 Sue 2012-12-07 18:58
my 5 year old has been having seizures which are described as Atypical. EEGs are normal He will start off being unwell and saying his head is driving him crazy. He will stare between 2 and 5 minutes and vomit. Can be spoken to, and can respond although slower and i find him difficult to understand. He usually has about 4 of these in one day. Each time the staring episode lasts longer. My boy has lots of sensory issues and challenging behaviours.
My quesion, have you ever heard of a child having a type of seizure due to being over stimulated. Like his brain just has to shut down for a day.
The next few days all of his senses become extremely heightened but thiscan last about a week. He will then become a nice child for another week or so. Then he has sleep apnea, and his behaviours are at meltdown stage extremely quickly. At times he may go back to a nice child but if he has too much stimulase he can explode... Any ideas?
#21 Shara - owner 2012-12-06 01:58
I do apologize. I have reached out to the author multiple times, asking her to comment on these questions. Perhaps my emails haven't made it to her in-box. You can find her own site here: www.hartleysboys.com/
#20 Guest 2012-12-06 01:32
I seems like a lot of these comments are from a while ago, so I'm not really sure if anyone is still checking this article to respond, but...

My daughter is going through a lot of what the pp mentioned about clothing. Everything feels too tight for her, she usually wears pants large enough they could fall down and still complains it's too tight. Everything is a struggle- pants, underware, socks, shirts, pants, shoes, outwear. Now she's even having trouble at school bc she doesn't want to keep socks and shoes on. Talked to doc and they said since she's not responding to loud noises she'll probably grow out of it. Mornings are hell.

Any input?
#19 Rhonda Giarratana 2012-11-19 00:08
my newly 7 yr old son has issues with clothing, will not wear undewear! I gave up that fight years ago. Socks shoes and coats are the biggies now. had a melt down this morning worst yet. both my boys were late for school I had to pack all his sock and shoes in a bag and we tried them all on in the car til we got the right fit and then I took him into the school. He has had facial ticks in the past those seems to come and go. And he is impulsive. I need help and feel like I am not getting it from any doctor! what kind of Dr should I be going to? Any suggestions,adv ice helpful thanks !!!!!!!!!!!!
#18 Toni Jenkinson 2012-11-06 15:33
I am wondering if some one knows who I should speak to, I seem to be going round in circles. My 4 and 1/2 yr old was born requiring cardiac heart massage and narcain neopuff due to extremely low apgar scores. From day 1 she never sucked, not breast or bottle, 3 days later a tube was placed in her nose to stomach and removed day 7. Her total feeds were 10 ml every hour and she couldn't take more without regurging. now that we have hit school age things have escalated to being unwilling to join in, although liking to play with others, to speech issues, food is a huge problem with her only eating 14 foods and not all of them good for her. I am told she has a forward thrusting tongue hence the speech issues, but today a fire truck past us with sirens on and her whole demeanour changed from happy to sad and teary. It's not the first time we have noticed this. Any idea's if this is sensory Processing disorder or not???
#17 Shara - owner 2012-10-30 01:42
Hi everyone: I'm the owner of this site. I have contacted the author of this article a few times, letting her know that comments are here. I am hoping she will pop in at some point to reply. Thanks! ;-)
#16 marcia Shuman 2012-10-29 14:24
I have a bright, beautiful grandson who just turned four. We noticed within the past year or so that he has sensory isssues about noise. He put his hand to his ears for loud sounds, i.e. vacumn cleaner, screeming, hard crying from some one else. Actually he begins to cry and retreat. We also within the year have noticed he is afraid of other children and toddlers. He does not know what to expect of them and trys to protect himself from some sort of harm. He smiles alot, happy with his family, loves to show off, sing, dance, and a "puzzel champ". We give him much love and encouragement, but we need to do more. He does have some sort of pent up anxiety.
I wish for my grandson that he can show the world how wonderful he truly is. We go to OT, but I see other progress, but not what my daughter and I are looking for. How to help.
#15 shaleen 2012-10-18 21:54
If it is SID try having him jump as hard and as high as he wants to for approx 15 mins on a trampoline and see if that helps his behavior...Also , look into his diet..see articles on the web in regard to GAPS diet.. the connection between the Gut and Brain disorders.. hope this helps.. just a mother of 2 with similar disorders...
#14 Antoinette Morrison 2012-09-26 19:01
So glad you posted this article. In the area in which I live, I have not yet seen one child diagnosed with this, everything here is "on the spectrum". Honstly, I have heard, more than once, upon seeing 1 symptom (ex; toe walking) "He's on the spectrum for sure!". I wish there was more information made public about this. Not all kids are on the spectrum, but it does appear to me that there is more and more kids with SPD also, going undiagnosed or treated.
#13 Michelle Gouin 2012-09-20 05:57
:-) thank you so much! But it's not recognized by the medical community? Is that true ?? I'm trying to figure out my lil guy. He's my 3rd and 3 yrs old. He covers his ears and asks me to turn the dryer off. He yells alot. He is articulate and plays alone well. Plays with older sibs well but there 14 & 18. He has never liked other kids in his bubble. He will hit push and bite the sweetest kids out of his way. I never thought anything of any of this until he started covering his era but it's not every sound. Thinking about talking to my pediatric dr about it.

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