A Guide to Understanding and Managing Sensory Processing Disorder in Adults


Sensory processing disorder is a condition that affects how the  brain receives, processes, and integrates information from the environment. It commonly manifests in childhood—but what happens if it is left undetected or untreated in a child? Does it go away? In most cases, it does not—leaving you with an adult with sensory issues who struggles with daily life plus a range of secondary problems like feelings of isolation and underachievement.

Here, we’ll explore the symptoms and types of sensory processing disorder in adults and its diagnosis and treatment options. By the end of this article, you’ll have strategies to manage your SPD and feel more in control.

Key Take-Away Messages

What are the Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder in Adults?
Some of the signs of sensory processing disorder in adults include:Not detecting sensations, like being tapped on the backFinding crowded places and physical contact overwhelmingGetting bumps and scratches due to clumsinessBeing unable to learn dance steps or new motor skills like riding a bikeEnjoying high-adrenaline sports like skydiving or extremely spicy foodsExperiencing difficulty riding on elevators

What is Sensory Processing Disorder? 

We interact with our environment based on information from our senses. Sensory processing disorder is a condition that makes it difficult for the brain to detect, modulate, and interpret these sensory experiences [1]. This may cause adults with SPD to struggle to respond to their environment appropriately [1]. 

Their responses can vary, ranging from hypersensitivity, where sensations that don’t bother others cause stress or anxiety, to hyposensitivity, where they have a higher threshold for sensory input and seek more intense experiences, such as enjoying extremely spicy foods.

Some individuals also struggle to filter out unnecessary input, leading to sensory overload. A person whose central nervous system is overwhelmed with excessive sensory information may feel anxious, irritable, or aggressive. They may also feel physical symptoms like discomfort, headache, and even a panic attack.

Which Symptoms or Signs of SPD Relate to You? 

Here are some signs and symptoms that indicate that you may have SPD as an adult. This is adapted from the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile [2]:

  • You avoid places with strong scents, like stores selling perfumes and scented candles
  • You enjoy adding a substantial amount of spice to your food.
  • You don’t smell things other people do.
  • You stick with foods familiar to you.
  • You dislike riding on elevators.
  • You often bump into things.
  • You enjoy extreme sports and activities.
  • You need to look at your feet when climbing the stairs.
  • You find fast or unsteady visuals bothersome.
  • You are easily distracted by the movement around you.
  • You do not enjoy backrubs.
  • You have a habit of touching others when talking.
  • You do not notice when others touch your back or arm.
  • You find it hard to concentrate during long meetings.
  • You complete tasks at a slower pace than others.
  • You enjoy singing, whistling, or humming.
  • You ask others to turn down the TV volume.

Learn more about the different manifestations of SPD in our comprehensive guide on occupational therapy for sensory processing disorder. You may also want to use our free self-assessment test for SPD to see if you need further testing.

What Type of SPD Affects You?

SPD is a complex, broad condition. Experts suggest categorizing it into three types [3]:

  • Sensory modulation disorder (SMD): affects how a person regulates response relative to the degree, intensity, or nature of sensory input.
  • Sensory over responsivity (SOR): responds to sensory input faster, longer, or more intensely than others. Actions range from withdrawal or avoidance to negative or aggressive responses.
  • Sensory under responsivity (SUR): does not detect or fails to notice sensory input from their environment. They may appear withdrawn, self-absorbed, or difficult to engage.
  • Sensory-seeking (SS): craves input and engages in activities that provide intense sensations. They may engage in behaviors that appear attention-seeking.
  • Sensory discrimination disorder (SDD): causes difficulty interpreting characteristics of sensations, leading to problems with identifying similarities and differences between them.
  • Sensory-based motor disorder (SBMD): influences active movement and posture, affecting the ability to meet the motor demands of a task.
    • Postural disorder: affects posture, muscle tone, and muscle control.
    • Dyspraxia: affects motor planning, resulting in awkward or clumsy movements.

What Led to Your SPD?

Experts still do not know the cause of SPD, though researchers believe that it is due to alterations in brain pathways responsible for transmitting sensory signals. Factors that may potentially lead to such interactions include [4,5]:

  • Genetic factors
  • Prenatal factors like multiple pregnancies, stimulant exposure, taking certain medications, low birth weight, and C-section
  • Postnatal factors like perinatal shock from emergency birth or having surgery immediately after birth.

Having neurological disorders, developmental delays, and not being exposed to enough stimulation during critical periods of development may also lead to the development of SPD [6].

Do You Have Any Co-Occurring Conditions?

Recent studies show that SPD is linked to several neurodevelopmental disorders, particularly autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

ADHD and sensory processing disorder tend to have overlapping challenges, like distractibility, inappropriate behaviors, and a lack of awareness when being spoken to. While the two are separate conditions, they can co-occur in an individual. The STAR Institute, a leading center for sensory processing disorder research and treatment, reported a study showing that 40% of children with ADHD also have SPD [7].

Here are some ways to tell the two conditions apart based on how their symptoms present:

you focus or relax with specific sensory input but feel dysregulated with new sensory experiences
novel stimulation further causes dysregulation or sensory overload

you calm down or feel more regulated when you get a particular sensory input

you feel dysregulated at particular times of day, activities, or situations.
you are inattentive and impulsive regardless of sensory input

you seek constant novelty to feel more organized

you feel impulsive or hyperactive regardless of the sensory input provided
the activities or novelty you seek are not related to any particular sensation

When it comes to sensory processing disorder vs autism, the two are also separate conditions. Problems with social interaction and communication are hallmark features seen in autism, while SPD’s primary symptoms revolve around sensory issues. However, an overlap between the two conditions is also possible, with sensory-based behaviors being common features of autism. In fact, 90% of those with the condition report having atypical sensory experiences [1]. 

 Here are some subtle differences that may help tell one condition from the other:

may struggle with social interactions due to the sensory stimulation in the situation (e.g. place is too noisy or crowded)

may struggle detecting subtle changes in tone that underlies jokes and sarcasms

may not notice being called unless you call them loudly or tap them harder
struggles with social interactions regardless of the situation or activity

fails to understand verbal and non-verbal signals in communication

may not respond to name being called because they do not understand that name calling is a signal for them to pay attention

Links between SPD and other mental disorders like psychosis and mania have also been found. At the same time, children with SPD tend to develop anxiety disorders as they progress into adulthood [8,9].

How Can You Get Formally Diagnosed?

Before getting a formal diagnosis, professionals, teachers, and therapists typically perform an initial screening using checklists. If further evaluation is needed, trained professionals such as developmental pediatricians, occupational therapists (OTs), and neuropsychologists may use formal assessment tools, including sensory processing disorder tests like the Sensory Processing Measure and Sensory Profile, to diagnose SPD.

For people suspected to have co-occurring conditions, neurologists, psychiatrists and neurologists can conduct tests and assessments to rule out other conditions and confirm a diagnosis.

What Treatment Options Are Best for You?

There is no standard approach for treating SPD in adults. However, doctors typically recommend therapies and coping strategies tailored to your unique sensory challenges. 

Typical treatment for SPD in adults involves consultation and direct treatment with therapists (typically OTs and sometimes physical therapists). Direct treatment consists of providing sensory input to normalize their sensory symptoms and promote sensory processing.

Therapists can also prepare home programs like sensory diets, therapeutic listening programs like Soundsory® and Forbrain®, and other activities that aim to regulate their responses to sensory input. OTs can also help advocate for a person’s needs in school, work, and community by requesting reasonable accommodations, such as moving a cubicle to a quieter area or providing noise-canceling headphones.

Other possible treatment options include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Lifestyle changes to avoid triggers
  • Stress reduction techniques 

What Daily Strategies Can Support You?

Adults with SPD greatly benefit from coping strategies to manage their everyday sensory struggles. Here are some of them:

  • Select the activities, plans, and tasks to involve yourself in. 
  • Create a sensory-friendly space at home, school, or work.
  • Follow a consistent daily routine and schedule to keep things predictable.
  • Participate in or schedule enjoyable and regulating activities, like music, art, or sports.
  • Practice deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation to improve self-regulation.
  • Engage in regular physical activity.
  • Use assistive devices or accommodations, like noise-canceling headphones and an FM system


SPD is a complex condition that can affect one or more sensory systems and come in different types. The presence of co-occurring conditions like ADHD and autism further complicates it.

It can make daily life difficult for adults and lead to significant challenges if left unmanaged. Treatment options, such as sensory integration therapy and coping strategies, can help adults with SPD manage their sensory issues effectively.

The condition makes day-to-day life hard for adults and can cause significant challenges and secondary problems if left unmanaged. Coping strategies and treatment, including sensory integration therapy, can help people with SPD handle their sensory issues better.

If you think you have SPD, seeking support and getting a diagnosis can make a world of difference. For additional resources and support, consider reaching out to professionals and organizations specializing in SPD, such as the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing.


What helps with sensory overload in adults?

Identifying your sensory triggers and avoiding them can help prevent sensory overload. Recognizing how sensory overload manifests in you, such as through irritability and anxiety, can help you manage it before it escalates.

Strategies like deep breathing exercises and withdrawing to a less stimulating environment during sensory overload can help you self-regulate and calm down.

How is sensory processing disorder treated in adults?

Unlike children, adults with SPD are not typically placed in sensory-rich environments. Treatment often involves consultations, home programs, and education about sensory processing. This approach lays the foundation for self-advocacy and the development of effective coping strategies.

What are examples of sensory seeking behaviors in adults?

Examples of sensory-seeking behaviors in adults include constant movements like fidgeting and pacing, high energy levels, enjoying loud music, and seeking specific textures, scents and flavors.


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Rachel Ann Melegrito

I’m a licensed occupational therapist turned content writer with over a decade of clinical experience as a pediatric OT. I also used to teach basic sciences and OT courses in a university before I shifted to content writing.