Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder

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Have you ever been standing on a sidewalk talking when suddenly a fire truck is racing down the street with the lights and sirens on and the horn beeping? As an adult, the sound is distracting and often causes you to stop your conversation. But for a child who may be ultra sensitive to lights and sound, a fire truck might be extremely confusing. This is just one of many examples of what a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) may experience every day. 

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) refers to difficulty in organizing and using sensory information in the brain, which can cause a person to have problems interacting
effectively in everyday situations. It can also cause difficulty in a child’s movement, emotions, attention, and other responses.

Children with SPD can’t rely on their senses to give them an accurate picture of what is happening around them and don’t know how to behave in response. They may encounter some difficulty learning and behaving appropriately. SPD may affect all five senses—touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste.

Sensory Processing Disorder is an umbrella term used that describes many specific sensory disorders. For more information about specific diagnoses, go to: spdfoundation.net.

Hypersensitivity vs. Hyposensitivity
A child with Sensory Processing Disorder can be either hypersensitive or hyposensitive. 

Hypersensitivity occurs when a child is oversensitive to certain types of sensory input, while hyposensitivity is when a child is under-sensitive to certain types of sensory input. 

Children who are hypersensitive will often avoid the sensation all together because it’s overwhelming, while a hyposensitive child might seek it out because it’s soothing. 

Children may be hypersensitive to some sensations and hyposensitive to other sensations, and they can also be overly sensitive one day and under sensitive to the very same sensation the next day. 

A child with SPD may have difficulties in one or more of the following areas: 

  • Sensory Exploration
  • Emotional and Social
  • Motor
  • Cognitive
  • Speech-language
  • Eating
  • Grooming and Dressing

For example, a child with SPD may be oversensitive to the sense of touch. It may be hard for a child who is oversensitive to make physical contact with other people or objects in their everyday life, which can lead to avoiding experiences and social isolation. The child may not be comforted with a parent’s hug. 

In contrast, a child who is under sensitive to the sense of touch often make excessive physical contact with people and objects. The child may touch other children too forcefully or inappropriately by biting or hitting. 

Resources and Evaluations
You may be wondering how to determine if your child has sensory processing issues and when you should seek a diagnosis or therapy. Here are some questions to ask yourself: 

  • Does the problem get in the child’s way? Is he or she struggling with doing everyday tasks? Does he or she have low self esteem?
  • Does the child’s problem get in other people’s way? The behavior doesn’t necessarily bother the child but bothers others. 
  • Have teachers, pediatricians, or family members observed similar behaviors? 

Learning everything you can about your child’s development will help you to be a better parent. Gathering information about your child’s strengths and weaknesses will help how you educate, discipline, and know your child. 

To have your child evaluated for SPD, check with the Birth to Three program in your area (www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/children/birthto3/), your local school district, or get a referral from your pediatrician to see an occupational therapist. 

Private mental health and social service agencies might also provide services. Unfortunately, even though your child may need therapy, health insurance policies do not always cover this expense. Because therapy costs will most likely be left to you, weigh the expense versus the benefits. 

One major benefit of obtaining therapy is that the therapist’s expertise and therapeutic equipment provides your child the opportunity to obtain the experiences they wouldn’t experience elsewhere. You will most likely see great positive changes in your child’s behavior, feelings, skill, and your family life. 

What Can You Do?
Working with your child at home is necessary in addition to any therapy he or she receives. When working with your child at home, remember to maintain a balanced sensory diet. 

A balanced sensory diet is a scheduled program that a therapist develops for children to help them become better regulated. In the same way that the main food groups provide daily nutrition, a sensory diet fulfills the physical and emotional needs of your child. Children with SPD need a specific diet with sights, sounds, smells, and touch more than most others.

A sensory diet includes a combination of alerting, organizing, and calming activities. 

Alerting activities benefit the under-responsive child, who needs a boost to become effectively aroused. These include: 

  • Crunching dry cereal, chips, crackers, carrots, apples
  • Taking a shower
  • Bouncing on a therapy ball or beach ball
  • Jumping on a mattress or trampoline

Organizing activities help regulate the child’s responses. They include: 

  • Chewing granola bars, licorice, gum, bagels
  • Hanging by the hands from a chinning bar
  • Pushing or pulling heavy loads
  • Getting into an upside-down position

Calming activities help the child decrease sensory over-responsitivity or overstimulation. They include:

  • Sucking a pacifier, hard candy, or spoonful of peanut butter
  • Pushing against walls with the hands, shoulders, back, and head
  • Rocking, swaying
  • Cuddling or back rubbing
  • Taking a bath

This might seem overwhelming, but it’ll help to have some guidelines for implementing a balanced sensory diet. Here are a few examples:

  • Set up specific times during the day, such as after breakfast or before bedtime.
  • If possible, supply the activity that your children want. Even though they may not be able to communicate it, they may be telling you with their body movements. For example, if they are jumping off the bed, you might try having them jump on a mini trampoline instead. 
  • Let your child direct the play and during the activity, be sure to watch for nonverbal cues. A cue might be the child relaxing or having a pleased facial expression, whereas whimpers or raucous laughter may mean it’s time to stop. 
  • Keep a variety of activities and change the routine and environment often.
  • Check with the therapist periodically to be sure the program is meeting your child’s needs. 

Promoting your Child’s Success at School
Talking or emailing with school staff will likely help your child’s success at school. A child with SPD may have difficulties settling into work. Everything could be a distraction to your child such as the sound of crumpling paper, the closeness of a classmate, or the movement of something outside the classroom window. 

School may be difficult for the following reasons: 

  • Sensory stimuli is often excessive. People mill around, lights and sounds are everywhere. Your child may become overloaded easily. 
  • Conversely, sensory stimuli may be insufficient. A long time of sitting may create problems for a child who often needs short breaks to stand and stretch.
  • Being in school often puts pressure on children to perform and conform. A child with SPD often buckles under pressure.
  • The school environment is constantly changing. Changes from reading to math to gym may overwhelm the child who switches gears slowly. 

School is not like home. Children often see school as unpredictable, where home is safe and familiar. School can become more like home when you share information about your child with teachers and others who can make a difference in your child’s success. Communicating regularly with your school staff usually helps everyone.

Every Little Bit Helps
One Wisconsin foster and adoptive parent said that her daughter didn’t qualify for an SPD diagnosis, but they were still able to get a referral to see an occupational therapist.

“The OT was great,” she says. “She had some simple and seemingly common sense activities that my daughter could do to help her at school and home. I was surprised that I didn’t think about them myself and was amazed to see how much they helped.” 

She goes on to say that she talked to the school and they were also agreeable in letting her daughter chew gum in class, for example, or rip up paper when stressed out.

For more information on implementing a balanced sensory diet at home check out the books listed in our resource section. 

Sensory Processing Disorder can be difficult to diagnose since it can be mistaken for many other diagnoses. But with the right knowledge, as well as early intervention, your child can overcome some of these obstacles.


  • The Out-of-Sync Child, by Carol S. Kranowitz 
  • The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, by C.S. Kranowitz 
  • The Sensory-Sensitive Child, by Karen A Mith and Karen R Gouze 
  • Understanding Sensory Integration


Copyright © 2018 Coalition for Children | Youth | Families, formerly Adoption Resources of WI