Published on September 01, 2022

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Child Finger Painting

Sensory processing is the body's ability to accurately interpret sensory input in the environment, including tactile (touch and feel on the skin), auditory, vestibular (balance), gustatory (taste), proprioceptive (position in space), vision and olfactory (smell). This function happens in our brain stem and is used for the purpose of awareness, growth and learning. When the brain receives incoming sensory input from the environment, we have to be able to respond appropriately. 

When we receive sensory input and organize it, we are able to successful and correctly respond and react, allowing us to engage in things like eating, sleeping, going to school and even playing. When there is a disruption in our ability to accurately receive and organize sensory input, it's referred to as sensory processing disorder, or SPD.

Anyone can have SPD, but when it comes to children, SPD limits their ability to participate in certain activities, demonstrate self-awareness and attention, manage behavioral responses and master certain skills. 

There are three main categories of SPD: sensory modulation, sensory-based motor disorder and sensory discrimination disorder. 

With sensory modulation, your child may over- or under-respond to stimuli, or be unsatisfied with certain sensory stimulation. Sensory-based motor disorder refers to a difficulty with balance, motor coordination and skill performance for motor tasks. It also includes postural disorder, where a child appears weak or to have poor endurance, as well as dyspraxia, a difficulty with thinking of, planning or executing skilled movements, such as a child who struggles with tying their shoes, getting dressed or pedaling a bike. Finally, sensory discrimination disorder occurs when children can't distinguish the difference between sensory inputs. This includes visual, auditory and proprioceptive difficulties - for example, children who have a hard time distinguishing shapes and colors, difficulty following verbal instructions, or who have a hard time determining how much force to use when doing things like throwing a ball or shutting a door. 

If you have a child who is experiencing any of these forms of sensory processing disorder, an occupational therapist can help, especially if you begin to notice that your child is unable to maintain, progress or even acquire new skills. In occupational therapy, your child will be assessed and evaluated to determine what atypical behaviors they are experiencing and analyze which of their skills are impeded by SPD. An occupational therapist will also help you pinpoint exactly what type of SPD is present in your child, and use assessments and observe your child in play, school or even at home to come up with what is called a 'sensory diet.' This determines what type of sensory input is needed to help the brain move out of 'fight or flight' mode when sensory input is received, and instead use the forefront of the brain that is better suited for skill acquisition and critical executive thinking and emotional awareness. 

Madeline Welch, O.T.R.L., is an occupational therapist at MyMichigan Health.