Sensory Processing Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment – About Your Online Magazine


Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that arrives through the senses.

Formerly known as sensory integration dysfunction, it is not currently recognized as a separate medical diagnosis.

Some people with sensory processing disorder are hypersensitive to things in their environment. Ordinary sounds can be painful or overwhelming. The light touch of a shirt can irritate the skin.

Others with sensory processing disorder may:

  • Be uncoordinated
  • Bumping into things
  • Being unable to tell where your members are in space
  • It is difficult to talk or play

Sensory processing problems are generally identified in children. But they can also affect adults. Sensory processing problems are commonly seen in conditions of development, such as autism spectrum disorder.

Sensory processing disorder is not recognized as an autonomous disorder. But many experts think that this should change.

Symptoms of sensory processing disorder

The disturbance of sensory processing can affect a sense, such as hearing, touch or taste. Or it can affect several senses. And people can be super or insufficient for the things they have a hard time with.

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Like many diseases, the symptoms of the sensory processing disorder exist on a spectrum.

In some children, for example, the sound of a leaf blower outside the window can make them vomit or dive under the table. They can scream when touched. They can back off with the textures of certain foods.

But others don’t seem to respond to anything around them. They may not respond to extreme heat or cold or even pain.

Many children with sensory processing disorder start out as restless babies who become anxious as they grow up. These children generally do not cope well with changes. They can often have tantrums or break down.

Many children experience symptoms like these from time to time. But therapists consider a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder when symptoms become severe enough to affect normal functioning and disrupt everyday life.

Causes of sensory processing disorder

The exact cause of the sensory processing problems has not been identified. But a 2006 study of twins found that hypersensitivity to light and sound can have a strong genetic component.

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Other experiments have shown that children with sensory processing problems have brain activity when they are simultaneously exposed to light and sound.

Still other experiments have shown that children with sensory processing problems will continue to respond strongly to a blow to the hand or to a loud sound, while other children quickly get used to the sensations.

Treatment for sensory processing disorder

Many families with an affected child find it difficult to get help. This is because sensory processing disorder is not a currently recognized medical diagnosis.

Despite the lack of widely accepted diagnostic criteria, occupational therapists commonly see and treat children and adults with sensory processing problems.

Treatment depends on the child’s individual needs. But, in general, it involves helping children do better in activities that they are not normally good at and helping them get used to things they cannot tolerate.

The treatment for sensory processing problems is called sensory integration. The goal of sensory integration is to challenge the child in a fun and playful way so that he can learn to respond appropriately and function more normally.

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One type of therapy is called a model based on development, individual difference and relationship (DIR). The therapy was developed by Stanley Greenspan, MD, and Serena Wieder, PhD.

An important part of this therapy is the “time of use” method. The method involves several play sessions with the child and the parents. The game sessions last about 20 minutes.

During the sessions, the parents are first asked to follow the child’s example, even if the behavior of playing is not typical. For example, if a child is rubbing the same spot on the floor repeatedly, the parent does the same. These actions allow parents to “enter” the child’s world.

This is followed by a second phase, where the parents use the game sessions to create challenges for the child. The challenges help pull the child into what Greenspan calls a “shared” world with parents. And the challenges create opportunities for the child to master important skills in areas such as:

  • Relating
  • Communicating
  • Thought

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The sessions are tailored to the child’s needs. For example, if the child tends to react poorly to touch and sound, parents need to be very energetic during the second phase of play sessions. If the child tends to overreact to touch and sound, the parents will need to be more calming.

These interactions will help the child move forward and, believe DIR therapists, will also help with sensory problems.

Paula Fonseca