What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

We all know about our five senses, touch, sight, hearing, smell & taste, or to give the last two their formal names, olfactory and gustatory, but did you know that we also have two other hidden senses?

These have very clinical names, proprioceptive and vestibular.  Our proprioceptive, or body position, sense gives us information from our muscles and joints on our body position and where our arms and legs are in relation to our body.  Our vestibular sense gives us information from our inner ear about how our body is moving and maintaining balance.

Problems with the senses can present themselves as follows:

Touch: This sense gives us information about what is touching our body, such as the temperature, texture, weight, or size. Problems may present themselves as sensitivity to clothing textures, not wanting to get hands dirty, or resistance to such things as brushing one’s teeth or hair.

Sight: This sense gives us information about what we see, such as the colour, size, location, or distance between items. Problems with visual input may present as difficulty copying written information from the board or sensitivity to fluorescent lights.

Hearing: This sense provides information about what we hear, including discriminating between different sounds. Problems with auditory input may present as sensitivity to loud or unexpected sounds, difficulty maintaining attention in noisy environments, or appearing to not hear name called.

Olfactory (smell): This sense provides information about smells in the air. Problems with olfactory input may present as sensitivity to perfume or shampoo, smelling food before tasting it, or gagging with certain food smells.

Strawberry OatsGustatory (taste): This sense provides taste information about items that enter the mouth. Problems with gustatory input may present as selective eating patterns, gagging on certain foods, or preference for either really strong or very bland flavours.

Problems with proprioceptive input may present as appearing clumsy, climbing or hanging on furniture, falling or crashing into things intentionally, w-sitting or leaning on elbows when sitting at a desk or table.

Vestibular input problems may present as avoiding swings, zip-lines or other playground equipment that require the feet leaving the ground, becoming car sick easily, or resistance to tipping head back to wash hair.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a term used to describe children who have difficulty with processing the sensory information from their environment into information that makes sense to them.

Sensory Processing Disorder may include:

  • Being easily distracted
  • Overly sensitive to touch, movement, sights or sounds
  • Under reactive to touch, movement, sights or sounds
  • High activity level or unusually low activity level
  • Poor body awareness
  • Difficulty calming down
  • Delays in speech, language, or motor skills
  • Clumsiness
  • Difficulty with transitions
  • Impulsiveness

(Sensory Processing Disorder Answer Book by Tara Delaney, MS, OTR/L)

If you suspect that you child may have SPD, it is important to talk to your GP first and then a sensory occupational therapist.  Children develop at different paces and at times will display all of the above.  I know that as a child I got car sick a lot and to this day the smell & taste of fish can make me want to barf. Does that mean I have SPD? No.

You know your child best.  At some stage they will display every single one of the characteristics on the list.  This does not mean that they have SPD.

However, if there are clusters of items from the list and they are getting progressively worse or not improving then it’s time to take action.  Keep a diary as this will greatly help the doctor or occupational therapist. If a diagnosis is made, then sensory-based occupational therapy intervention can be very beneficial to children displaying sensory symptoms. With occupational therapy intervention, children and their families can learn useful strategies to help the children maintain a state of regulation, allowing the child be more successful at school, in the home, and in their community.


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