Sensory Integration & Sensory Processing Disorder – Signs of SPD in Children

LAST MODIFIED: Thursday, April 25, 2019
Parents trying to calm crying toddler

Most people experience a lack of sensory integration at some point in their lives.

Maybe one person cannot stand the feeling of a clothing tag rubbing up against the skin; maybe another person does not like the texture of a tomato.

Some people have aversions to physical touch or consider themselves to be general klutzes.

Experiencing some degree of these things is fairly natural, but in some cases, sensory integration fails in a way that is significant enough to be labeled as Sensory Processing Disorder.


What is Sensory Integration?

Sensory integration is an essential part of everyday life, but it is easy to take for granted. To the average person, getting dressed in the morning or eating a meal is not difficult, but if the senses do not function correctly, even such mundane tasks can become trials.

For proper sensory integration to occur, the nervous system must properly receive signals from the senses and interpret them appropriately.

Eating a cheeseburger, for example, requires the integration of multiple senses. The eyes must see the location of the burger; the hands must reach out, pick up the burger, and bring it to the mouth; and the taste buds must register the flavor and the texture of the burger.

If even one of these senses fails to function properly, then enjoyment of the cheeseburger is hampered—if not outright impossible.


What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

When proper sensory integration fails to occur in multiple senses or in a highly concentrated manner with one sense, Sensory Processing Disorder may be the diagnosis. While SPD is not formally recognized as its own disorder, some medical professionals and people who have the disorder are trying to change that.

This disorder used to be referred to as Sensory Integration Dysfunction, but some experts felt that a name change might help more people—and, of course, insurance companies—take this problem more seriously.

Some experts have linked SPD with autism, ADHD, and other developmental disorders, although having one does not mean a person has the other.

In fact, some may go as far as to suggest that Sensory Processing Disorder is not its own disorder at all but is rather a misdiagnosis for autism or ADHD.

Genetic factors may also come into play, especially in terms of issues like light and sound sensitivity. Whether SPD is its own disorder or is a side effect or misdiagnosis of other disorders, the signs of it illustrate that SPD affects people’s day to day lives.


Signs of SPD

Diagnosing Sensory Processing Disorder—especially in children—can be difficult because many of these symptoms on their own can be chalked up to “kids will be kids.”

Is a child rebelling or is she genuinely repulsed by the texture of some fruits and vegetables? Is a kid simply trying to assert his independence from Mommy in front of his friends or does he actually feel pain when he is hugged?

These and other similar types of behavior must be evaluated as a whole over a period of time in order to make a diagnosis of SPD.

One large indicator of potential SPD is if these sensory integration issues are chronic. Children may grow out of certain behaviors; “yucky” vegetables may gain appeal, and children might reach that age at which hugging parents is not a social death sentence.

Yet if children—or adults—continue to have significant issues with food texture, physical touch, light sensitivity, an overall lack of coordination, etc., then those people might have SPD.

Another symptom of SPD is extreme reaction to stimuli.

Few people find the sound of a leaf blower or vacuum cleaner to be pleasant, for example; many people might even find both to be loud. However, most people do not scream or vomit when they hear these loud sounds.

Young girl covering her ears

SPD can cause sensory overload to a degree that negatively affects the body, so reacting in a way outside of the norm in terms of stimuli could be a sign of SPD.

In children especially, another possible sign of SPD is the throwing of frequent tantrums. True, some children throw tantrums simply because they are not getting their way or because they are tired and do not want to sit through an hour’s worth of grocery shopping.

Others, however, may be throwing tantrums because their senses in a place like a grocery store, a park, or a church are being overwhelmed.

Not all symptoms of SPD involve overstimulation; in fact, some forms of Sensory Processing Disorder can manifest in the form of understimulation.

For example, parents might get worried because their child does not show much of a reaction to the heat or the cold. Children who move more slowly than normal or who are always knocking into things may also suffer from understimulation.

In some cases, understimulated children may not even react to pain.


Support for SPD

Receiving treatment for SPD may be difficult because many insurance companies do not recognize Sensory Processing Disorder as its own viable disorder. Some progress has been made on this front, however, so people who have this disorder themselves or who think their children have it should look into their insurance plans or talk to a customer service representative for further clarity.

Finding help for SPD is not impossible, however, and there are a couple of forms of therapy that may prove effective.


Treatment for SPD

This often centers around confronting the uncomfortable or the unfamiliar in what are often called sensory integration sessions. These sessions may be performed by an occupational therapist and are centered around teaching children with SPD about relating, communicating, and thinking.

Children who have tactile defensiveness, for example, may be treated by sessions in which they play with play doh or other such tactile substances. Kids who are often aggressive or rambunctious may be treated by being given weights to lift as a means of channeling that aggression.

Not all sensory integration therapy needs to take place in an office, however; people can do many things at home to treat SPD. Children and adults who have trouble sleeping may be given relaxing soundtracks, aromatherapy machines, lava lamps, or other things that can soothe them as they try to sleep.

Parents may gently massage a child’s face and gums in order to deal with issues of oral sensitivity. Group activities may be scheduled by parents of children whose SPD inhibits them from forming healthy social attachments and habits.

Others might even want to consider constructing a sensory room in the house and filling it with many pleasurable things that stimulate their senses and/or help their children work through their issues with Sensory Processing Disorder.


See a Medical Professional

People who think they or their children have SPD should consult with a psychologist, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, or another medical professional.

A diagnosis might be reached by conducting psychological and neurological tests—especially if the person is exhibiting severe symptoms. Untreated Sensory Processing Disorder can result in behavioral changes, low self-esteem, and learning disabilities; people with SPD may also experience negative impacts in their personal relationships, professional lives, and emotions.

Seeking out help for SPD could help those who have it improve in these and other areas of their lives.