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Sensory processing disorder

Sensory processing refers to the way we get information about the world around us and from inside our own bodies.

Most people know the five common senses: smell, sight, sound, taste and touch. But we also have senses that give us information about what our bodies are doing and how they relate to what is around us.

Balance is one of these senses. Another is called proprioception (pro-pree-o-sep-shun), which is the sense of knowing where the parts of our body are in relation to one another and how to safely move around. For example, even if you're blindfolded, you'll be able to touch your knee or know if your hand is by your side or above your head. This is proprioception.

If a child has a sensory processing disorder, the information coming in through one or more of their senses becomes muddled or overloaded.

Generally, there are two types of difficulties:

Sometime children are over-sensitive to some information (for example, noise) and under-sensitive to other information (for example balance).

Symptoms of a sensory processing disorder

Sensory processing disorders are hidden difficulties – we cannot see what is going on inside a child's nervous system, so we have to use their behaviour as a guide.

If a child is over-sensitive to some sensory information, they may become very anxious. This anxiety may cause them to withdraw, to try to avoid certain situations or to become controlling as they try to avoid overload. They may also have frequent meltdowns as a result of overload.

If a child is under-sensitive to some information (or even misses it altogether), they may seem quite hyperactive as they continuously try to seek out more sensory information. For example, they may move around constantly, make a lot of noises or try to touch people or things all the time. Alternatively, they might always seem to be in a daydream as they simply do not get enough sensory information to focus on what they're doing.

Sensory processing difficulties often happen with other development problems such as dyspraxia, learning difficulties, autism spectrum disorder and ADHD.

Diagnosing a sensory processing disorder

Sensory processing disorder is usually assessed by occupational therapists. If you need help finding an occupational therapist, speak to your child's GP or teacher.

An occupational therapist will ask you about your child's history and watch how they behave in different environments. They may ask you to do a sensory profile questionnaire, which helps to show how your child is processing the information they receive from their senses. They may also check for other development difficulties such as autism spectrum disorder and dyspraxia, which often happen alongside sensory processing disorder.

Helping a child with sensory processing disorder

The help you can offer your child will depend on their specific difficulties as well as their strengths. Once you know more about what they have difficulty with and what they do well you can:

As well, an occupational therapist may be able to help them build awareness of their own bodies or decrease some of their sensitivities.

Talk to your child's occupational therapist or teacher about what will work best for your child.

There are community child development support services that can help. Your GP or child's school may also know what services are available for you and your child.

Long-term effects of a sensory processing disorder

Sensory processing disorders affect different people in different ways. Generally, a child's disorder will stay with them as they grow up. But people with sensory processing disorders tend to choose jobs and hobbies that suit their strengths, minimising the difficulties they face.

Adults with significant sensory processing disorders will probably continue to need to make adjustments in their environment and may need continued support to avoid mental health issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.

Written by a private occupational therapist, Canterbury. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created August 2021.


See also:

Auditory processing disorder

Page reference: 375399

Review key: HICDG-40335