What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Someone with sensory processing disorder may seek out extra sensation by overeating.
Someone with sensory processing disorder may seek out extra sensation by overeating.

Sensory processing disorder or sensory integration dysfunction (DSI) is a condition that may affect up to 5% of the general population. It is typically defined as a neurological disorder that means sensory input can materially affect a person, to the point where they become withdrawn, aggressive, panicked, or hostile. Simple noises, tastes, touches, or sights can so significantly affect daily living that normal activities are not bearable or are impossible.

Some people with sensory processing disorder are hypersensitive to things like sound.
Some people with sensory processing disorder are hypersensitive to things like sound.

Alternately, instead of being hypersensitive, some people with the condition are hyposensitive, and fail to respond in normal fashion to stimulation of the senses. These people, primarily children, may seek out extra sensation, and may hurt themselves, overeat, or seek to stimulate themselves in settings where they perceive a lack of sensation. This might manifest as the restless behavior of a child with hyperactivity who can’t stop talking or can’t stay seated. Similarly the hypersensitive child might act in hyperactive ways because they are overstimulated by sensory input.

Occupational therapy often includes or complements sensory integration therapy.
Occupational therapy often includes or complements sensory integration therapy.

In many cases, sensory processing disorder is associated with other conditions. It is usually present in people who have autism spectrum disorder and is associated with other conditions like attention deficit and Tourette syndrome. Sometimes it presents alone, but may be misdiagnosed since it can mask or cause the symptoms of other conditions. Diagnosis is made through examination and testing by an occupational therapist. Commonly the only way sensory processing disorder is appropriately diagnosed is by an occupational therapist.

Someone who suffers from a visual processing disorder may be unable to identify letters.
Someone who suffers from a visual processing disorder may be unable to identify letters.

Though there are no cures for sensory processing disorder there are a number of adaptive therapies which can be tried to help children modify reactions to sensory input. Treatment may be undertaken in hospital settings or from home through therapy sessions to help a child adapt to feelings of sensory overload or deprivation in order to more adequately pursue a normal life. Decision as to whether to hospitalize a child with sensory processing disorder may be based on the availability of such a hospital for a child, and also on the degree to which the condition has a negative impact on children’s lives. Some children are hypersensitive without being considered as having a disorder; there is a spectrum, which can manifest as mild to major symptoms of the condition. Usually the condition is not considered a disorder unless the child or adult’s life is significantly affected by hyper or hyposensitivity.

The more severe cases of sensory processing disorder have a significant impact on daily life and are related to intense depression in people who suffer from the condition. Normal behavior like attending school, eating, watching TV, having friends, or even interacting with family is virtually impossible. The simplest touch can feel like a violation, the simplest sound can completely disrupt focus, and most foods and smells are repugnant. Over time, through adaptive therapy with an occupational therapist, children can learn to overcome some of these intense reactions, though they may still be highly sensitive, fearful, and have difficulty with peer interaction. To worsen matters, many of the kids diagnosed with severe forms of this disorder have other issues, like difficulty with coordination, poor fine and gross motor skills, and occasionally speech difficulties.

The disorder remains challenging, and there is little research as to cause. Clearly more research is needed on how to treat the disorder effectively, and how to diagnose it at its earliest stages. Early intervention may be key to helping children adapt to sensory processing disorder so that life can be lived in a relatively normal fashion.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon166412

Two years ago, my daughter's speech teacher informed me that she suspected that my daughter could possibly have a sensory disorder.

Her reactions to seemingly simple touch, sounds, or even imagined touches and sounds, are so over done. She's been getting into a lot of trouble at school and home for these reactions. She gets overwhelmed when there is too much noise, too many people, or just plain too much going on. She doesn't sleep well either.

How do we go about getting her tested for this? Do we start with the school? The home doctor? Please help!

mutsy

My friend’s son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as well as auditory processing disorder. He had a particularly difficult time learning how to read because he could not decipher between the various phonetic sounds.

He also saw a speech therapist for his speech delays and an occupational specialist for his fine motor problems. His occupational therapist used sensory integration therapy in order to develop his learning abilities by reinforcing the sense of touch and visuals.

I wanted to add that there is a fabulous book called, “ The Out of Sync Child” written by Carol Stock Kranowitz who was a special education teacher that talked about the various ways she educated preschool children with sensory integration therapy.

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    • Someone with sensory processing disorder may seek out extra sensation by overeating.
      By: Jaimie Duplass
      Someone with sensory processing disorder may seek out extra sensation by overeating.
    • Some people with sensory processing disorder are hypersensitive to things like sound.
      By: auremar
      Some people with sensory processing disorder are hypersensitive to things like sound.
    • Occupational therapy often includes or complements sensory integration therapy.
      By: g215
      Occupational therapy often includes or complements sensory integration therapy.
    • Someone who suffers from a visual processing disorder may be unable to identify letters.
      By: sdenness
      Someone who suffers from a visual processing disorder may be unable to identify letters.