Children with a sensory processing disorder may have an increased or decreased sensitivity to sensory input, such as light, sound, and touch. They may avoid or seek out sensory stimulation as a result.
What is sensory processing disorder?
Sensory processing disorder is a neurological condition in children that can affect the way the brain processes information from the senses. People with sensory processing disorder may be extra sensitive to or not react to sensory input, depending on how they are affected.
Examples of sensory input may include:
Children who have sensory issues may have an aversion to things that overstimulate their senses, such as loud environments, bright lights, or intense smells. Or, they may seek out additional stimulation in settings that don’t stimulate their senses enough.
Not a great deal is known about sensory issues or sensory processing disorder. More research is still needed.
Keep reading to learn more about the potential causes and symptoms of sensory processing disorder and how sensory issues can be treated.
What is sensory processing?
You may have learned about the five senses in elementary school, but the truth is, you experience the world with more than just your five senses.
Sensory processing is typically divided into eight main types. They can include:
Proprioception. Proprioception is the “internal” sense of awareness you have for your body. It’s what helps you maintain posture and motor control, for example. It also tells you about how you’re moving and occupying space.
Vestibular. This term refers to the inner ear spatial recognition. It’s what keeps you balanced and coordinated.
Interoception. This is the sense of what’s happening in your body. It may be best understood as how you “feel.” This includes whether you feel hot or cold and whether you feel your emotions.
Five senses. Lastly, there are the 5 common senses — touch, hearing, taste, smell, and sight.
It’s important to note that sensory processing disorder isn’t officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). There is a lack of research-based evidence to support diagnosing this disorder on its own. Many doctors and experts believe that sensory issues are actually a component of another condition or disorder, such as autism spectrum disorder.
The term “sensory processing disorder“ is more commonlyTrusted Source used in the field of occupational therapy.
But what is known about sensory processing disorder can help parents, healthcare professionals, and other caregivers understand the condition and provide support.
What are the signs and symptoms of sensory processing disorder?
The symptoms of having sensory processing issues may depend on the way a child processes different sensations.
Children who are easily stimulated may have hypersensitivity. This means they have an increased sensitivity to sensory inputs like light, sound, and touch. These sensations may bother them more, cause them to lose focus in the presence of too much sensory information, or cause them to act out.
Children may also experience hyposensitivity. This means they may have reduced sensitivity to sensory output.
The type of sensitivity someone experiences may largely determine what their symptoms are. For example, children who are hypersensitive may react as though everything is too loud or too bright. These kids may have difficulty being in noisy rooms. They may also have adverse reactions to smells.
Sensory hypersensitivity may cause:
- a low pain threshold
- appearing clumsy
- fleeing without regard to safety
- covering eyes or ears frequently
- picky food preferences or gagging when eating foods of certain textures
- resisting hugs or sudden touches
- feeling that soft touches are too hard
- difficulty controlling their emotions
- difficulty focusing attention
- difficulty adapting response
- behavior problems.
In contrast, children who are hyposensitive and experience reduced sensitivity crave interaction with the world around them. They may engage more with their surroundings to get more sensory feedback
In fact, this may make them appear hyperactive, when in reality, they may simply be trying to make their senses more engaged.
Sensory hyposensitivity may cause:
- a high pain threshold
- bumping into walls
- touching things
- putting things into their mouth
- giving bear hugs
- crashing into other people or things
- not regarding personal space
- rocking and swaying
What causes sensory issues in children?
It’s not clear what causes sensory issues in children, though researchers Trusted Source believe it may have something to do with the way the sensory pathways in the brain process and organize information. Sensory processing difficulties are common in autistic people.
It’s also not clear if sensory issues can occur on their own or if they are caused by another disorder. Some doctors and healthcare professionals believe sensory processing issues are a symptom of another issue rather than a diagnosis in itself.
According to a 2020 review and a small 2017 studyTrusted Source,sensory processing disorder may be related to prenatal or birth complications, which can include:
- premature birth
- low birth weight
- parental stress
- alcohol or drug consumption during pregnancy
Overexposure to certain chemicals and a lack of sensory stimulation in childhood may also be risk factors for developing sensory processing disorder.
Possible abnormal brain activity could change how the brain responds to senses and stimuli.
Are sensory issues part of another condition?
Many doctors don’t believe sensory issues on their own account for a separate disorder. But what is clear is that some people do have issues processing what they feel, see, smell, taste, or hear.
In most cases, sensory issues occur in children, but adults can experience them too. Many children with altered sensory processing are on the autism spectrum.
Conditions or disorders connected to sensory issues can include:
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autistic people may have changes to the neural pathways in their brain responsible for processing sensory information.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHA affects the ability to filter out unnecessary sensory information, which can lead to sensory overload.
- Schizophrenia. In people with schizophrenia,abnormal mechanisms in the brain’s sensory pathway and in the way it creates and organizes connections between neurons can cause altered sensory and motor processing.
- Sleep disorders. Sleep disorders, such as sleep deprivation, may result in delirium, which can cause temporary sensory processing issues.
- Developmental delay. Developmental delaysare also not uncommon in people with sensory issues.
- Brain injury.Traumatic brain injury (TBI)may be another potential cause of sensory processing disorder, according to 2019 researchTrusted Source.
It’s important to note, however, that children with ADHD experience hyperactivity for a different reason than children who have sensory issues.
People who have ADHD may have trouble concentrating or sitting still. People with sensory issues may have trouble sitting still because they crave sensory interactions with the world around them, or are bothered by their environment.
How are sensory issues diagnosed?
Sensory processing disorder isn‘t an officially recognized neurological condition. This means there is no formal criteria for a diagnosis.
Instead, doctors, educators, or healthcare professionals who help children with issues processing sensory information work from what they see in the child’s behaviors and interactions to determine how to best support them. Generally, these sensory issues are highly visible.
In some cases, professionals may use questionnaires such as the Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT) or the Sensory Processing Measure (SPM). Both of these tests can help healthcare professionals and educators better understand a child’s sensory functioning.
Sometimes, a child’s doctor may be able to work with the child’s school psychologist or special education educator to help them access in-school supports like occupational therapy.