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Sensory processing disorder

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological disability.


  • Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological disability.
  • The brain is unable to correctly process information from the senses.
  • The senses of touch, hearing, taste, sight, smell, proprioception and the vestibular sense may be affected.
  • Sensory processing dysfunction is a feature of various other neurological conditions.
  • SPD may be treated by sensory integration therapy.

Alternative names

Sensory integration dysfunction (SID), sensory integration disorder, sensory processing problems, sensory dysfunction.

What is sensory processing disorder?

SPD is a neurological disability that affects developing children. The brain is unable correctly to process information from the senses. The five well-known senses – particularly touch and hearing – may be affected, as well as the vestibular sense, which senses where the body is in space, and the proprioceptive sense, which senses body position.

Children who have SPD may demonstrate over- or under-response to sensory stimuli. They may respond with fear, aggression or withdrawal, or by seeking stimulation. Poor coordination and motor function, inattentiveness, disorganisation and social and academic problems are common.

What causes sensory processing disorder?

The brain receives information from the senses, and integrates and analyses it in order to react appropriately. The normal development of sensory integration begins before birth and continues during childhood. In SPD, these sensory messages are received, but not interpreted or combined with other messages correctly.

SPD may develop as a distinct condition, or it may be associated with other developmental disorders, particularly autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Other factors that may contribute to SPD include:

  • premature birth
  • brain injury
  • learning disabilities
  • delinquency and substance abuse
  • stress-related disorders

What are the symptoms of sensory processing disorder?

Symptoms may include:

  • Over- or undersensitivity to touch : children might react strongly to touch or pressure, and avoid physical contact with certain textures. Undersensitive children have poor perception and discrimination of touch, pain or temperature, and may show sensory-seeking behaviours.
  • Over- or undersensitivity to sight: may have difficulty with visual tracking, discrimination or perception; or be fascinated with visual stimuli such as lights or fans.
  • Over- or undersensitivity to sound: may frequently block their ears, be acutely aware of background noise, or have problems processing language.
  • Over- or undersensitivity to taste: may be picky eaters, react negatively to certain foods or fixate on one type of food.
  • Over- or undersensitivity to smell: may sniff at people, food or other objects
  • Over- or undersensitivity to movement, balance and position: may love to spin, swing or perform repetitive motions. There may be problems with muscle tone, coordination, and with judging movement. They may be afraid when moving through space, and tire easily.

In addition, people with SDP may display:

  • Social difficulties, emotional problems, poor self-concept, poor impulse control, short attention span, aggression or tendency to be distracted
  • Abnormally high or low activity levels
  • Resistance to new situations, or to changing situations
  • Inability to calm themselves down
  • Poor academic achievement, and delays in development of speech, language and motor skills


SPD is usually detected in young children. Observations of posture, balance, coordination, eye movements and responses to stimulation are made, usually by an occupational or physical therapist .

Some sensory over- or undersensitivity is within the normal range. SPD is only diagnosed when it interferes significantly with functioning.

SPD is not a clinical diagnosis, according to the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association 2000), and is not recognised by all health professionals. Some argue that SDP behaviours and symptoms might be caused by other conditions.

SPD may be diagnosed without any accompanying conditions. However, sensory integration dysfunction is part of, or is a co-condition of, many other conditions – especially autism and ADHD, but also a range of other developmental disorders. For this reason it may sometimes be misdiagnosed.


While there is no known cure, many treatments are available, and are usually performed by occupational therapists.

  • Sensory integration therapy aims to supply appropriate sensory experiences. It involves a scheduled activity program, tailored to the child’s needs. The therapist works with the child to provide sensory stimulation, using play. Children with low tactile sensitivity may be stroked or squeezed. Children with hypersensitivity may be exposed to gentle rocking and soft lighting. A child might also follow a daily schedule that provides challenging sensory experiences.
  • Other therapy focuses on making accommodations at home and school, such as using soft clothing, avoiding harsh lighting and supplying ear plugs.
  • Movement education and gymnastics may also be used.
  • Some research suggests that short periods of low-voltage cerebral electrical stimulation might be helpful.
  • Hypnosis, biofeedback, music therapy and psychotherapy are also used, particularly with older patients.



If there is appropriate treatment from an early age, SDP can be managed, and a child can learn to interact with their environment in a successful and appropriate way.



SPD often leads to emotional and behavioural problems. Children with SPD may be labelled aggressive or clumsy, and often struggle socially and academically.


When to call your doctor

You should see a doctor if you child shows signs of SPD, or is having problems with social, behavioural or academic development.

How can it be prevented?

There is currently no way to prevent the disorder.

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.