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About Sensory Disorder

What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

The concept of sensory integration disorder was popularized in the 1960s by Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist. Sensory Processing Disorder is considered a constellation of behaviors or developmental delays that occur when signals from one or more of the senses (taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing, and vestibular and proprioceptive) fail to get organized into appropriate responses.

Our nervous system receives messages from our senses and turns them into the appropriate speech, motor, and behavioral responses. The individual with SPD finds it difficult to process sensory messages then act upon the information received through his/her senses. This can cause difficulties in the everyday tasks of living, affect ability to communicate, affect ability to respond with appropriate language or actions, and cause difficulty with motor skills. An individual may over-respond or under-respond to external or internal stimuli. A child with SPD may be anxious, depressed, or have behavioral problems in school. This disorder may be exacerbated by overly stimulating environments (malls, birthday parties, school or playgroups, family gatherings) or reactions to physiological triggers (such as environmental allergies, stress, food sensitivities, and digestive imbalances). Continued inability to accurately interpret sensory messages can carry over into adulthood if this disorder is left unaddressed.

SPD is currently not a recognized diagnosis. Professional groups are working towards official recognition and acceptance as a diagnostic category, which will assist families in receiving assistance for this increasingly more common disorder.

The Five Senses: Taste, Touch, Sight, Smell, and Hearing

SPD can affect the five senses as well as two other senses:

  • Vestibular (the ability to perceive bodily position, motion, and balance in space; mediated by the inner ear, and stimulated by changes in ¬†gravity and head movements).

  • Proprioceptive (the ability to sense the position, location, orientation, and movement of the body and its parts in relation to self; mediated by joint and muscle movement).

Remember that any or all of the senses can be affected and there may be symptoms of under-responsiveness OR over-responsiveness.

Signs and Symptoms:


  • may be a picky eater (beyond age appropriateness)
  • may refuse or avoid certain food textures and tastes and textures
  • may prefer intense taste
  • extreme reaction to dental procedures
  • loves vibrating toothbrushes
  • excessive drooling, mouthing or chewing of objects


  • does not like to touched, held, kissed or hugged
  • does not like baths or hair being washed
  • does not like hair brushed or hair and/or nails cut
  • clothes, seams, tags irritate
  • may be hypersensitive to injuries or not responsive
  • may refuse to eat certain tastes or textures (beyond normal pickiness)
  • may refuse to walk on certain textures
  • may constantly put things in mouth
  • not aware of injury
  • may be self-injurious (head banging, biting self)
  • prefers strongly flavored or spiced foods unusual for age group or culture
  • gross and/or fine motor activity delayed

Sight (without a diagnosed vision disorder)

  • oversensitive to bright lights, sunlight, ¬†may prefer to be in a dark room
  • trouble focusing eyes on object
  • visual stimming: rapidly following the edge or movement of an object with eyes
  • difficulty or delayed ability to differentiate letters or objects
  • difficulty or delay in writing

Hearing (without a diagnosed hearing disorder)

  • Hypersensitive (easily startled or upset) to loud noises, clapping, fire alarms, fire engines
  • seems fearful of everyday sounds (vacuum, hair dryer, alarm clock)
  • hears sounds before others or that others do not notice
  • avoids or hides from movie theatres, malls, anywhere with loud noises or lots of different noises
  • does not respond to own name


  • oversensitive to smell
  • refuses to eat food because of smell
  • unable to discriminate between different smells
  • irritable around strong smells like perfume

 Vestibular (balance, sense of position and movement in space)

  • may seem unusually clumsy, trip or lose balance a lot
  • may avoid or overuse activities like swinging, merry-go-rounds
  • may avoid elevators and escalators
  • may be afraid of stepping off stairs or curbs, afraid of being upside down
  • may try to self-correct by spinning excessively, lying with head lower than stomach or feet, jumping excessively or wanting to be swung, spun, tossed in air
  • unusually fearful or fearless to the point of endangering self

Proprioceptive (processes information from muscles and joints about position and movement in relation to self)

  • responds well to joint compression, weighted blankets, trampoline, and/or brushing
  • may have poor muscle tone leading to seeming floppy, tiring easily, refusing to chew, delayed speech development
  • often misjudges where body is in space, gets in trouble for bumping into others or falling down a lot
  • may jump excessively or from high spaces to the point of self endangerment
  • misjudges appropriate movement or amount of force necessary to do tasks

Other Behaviours

  • may self soothe with excessive rocking, humming, head banging, rubbing an object
  • does not transition from one activity to another easily
  • can not be comforted or unable to self-soothe
  • does not toilet train by appropriate age
  • difficulty in going to or staying asleep
  • auditory processing disorder: difficulty or delayed development in communicating thoughts into words
  • delay or difficulty in articulating sounds
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