What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing, or sensory integration, refers to the way your nervous system interprets sensory messages and turns them into the appropriate physical responses. Your body processes sensory input whether you’re eating or reading, but some children have a condition that jumbles up sensory signals and makes day-to-day tasks become troublesome hurdles. This condition is referred to as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Sensory Diet

An occupational or speech therapist can help create a sensory diet—a treatment plan of personalized sensory activities—that helps kids with SPD balance their sensory needs. Many of these treatment plans will include caregiver education to help assess what kind of sensory experience your child is having, and which activities work best for each. You can read more about sensory diets here.

What Subtypes of SPD Exist?

When talking about subtypes of SPD, we refer to six possibilities that fall into three typical patterns. Almost all people with SPD have symptoms from more than one subtype.

Sensory Modulation Disorder

  • Sensory over-responsive (hyper)
  • Sensory under-responsive (hypo)
  • Sensory craving

Sensory-Based Motor Disorder

  • Postural disorder
  • Dyspraxia
  • Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SSD)

According to the Star Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder (STAR), there are more than 260,000 different ways that SPD can present in a person. Why so many? Well, SPD often occurs involving several subtypes and affects one or all eight of the following sensory systems:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Tactile
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Vestibular
  • Proprioception
  • Interoception

From all this, it’s easy to see that diagnosing and treating SPD can be a long and complicated process. Knowing which subtype of SPD a person has can make a huge difference in what kind of treatments should be employed, which makes the effort worthwhile.

For example, it would be counterproductive to bombard a child with over-responsivity with stimulation, making things much more difficult for them. However, therapy for a child with under-responsivity is beneficial and considered necessary to promote development.

If you aren’t sure of which subtypes pertain to you or someone you love, your doctor can refer you for an evaluation. Remember, though, that almost all people with SPD have symptoms from more than one subtype.

Below you will find a brief explanation of each subtype and examples of activities that are considered beneficial for finding the right sensory diet for your child.

Sensory Modulation disorders

1. Sensory Over-responsive or “hyper”

Children who are sensory over-responsive may have unusually intense reactions to ordinary stimuli. This may include a dislike of noisy environments, sensitivity to the lightest touch, or an aversion to smells or tastes.

Children with symptoms from this subtype can benefit from:

  • Swinging in a dark room with soothing music on
  • Dancing to slow music
  • Watching a waterfall, fish tank, or lava lamp
  • Stirring or mixing

2. Sensory Under-responsive or “hypo”

Children who are sensory under-responsive may not respond to stimuli in seek out stimulation like rough textures, loud noises or affection. They may not notice the slightest bump or touch of another person unless it’s hard. They may engage in self-abusive behaviors such as hitting or biting themselves.

Children with symptoms from this subtype can benefit from:

  • Playing with items with interesting textures such as rice or playdough
  • Jumping or swinging vigorously
  • Pushing strollers or pulling wagons
  • Spinning

3. Sensory Craving

Children with sensory craving or who are sensory seeking crave stimulation, however once they engage in a stimulating activity, they may be unable to process the information and continue to seek more. They may put objects in their mouth in a non-age appropriate way or seek to touch everything around them.

Children with symptoms from this subtype can benefit from:

  • Frequent opportunities sensory activities throughout the day
  • Swinging
  • Vibrating toothbrushes or hairbrushes
  • Alternating higher energy activities with “reorganizing” activities like slow, deep massage or listening to relaxing music

Sensory-Based Motor Disorders

4. Postural Disorders

Children with postural disorder may appear to be weak and unable to support their body during standing or sitting. They may have poor balance, endurance, and poor awareness of their body during motor tasks.

Children with symptoms from this subtype can benefit from:

  • Climbing stairs
  • Improving core strength and awareness
  • Obstacle courses
  • Walking on uneven surfaces
  • Activities that challenge postural changes such as squatting to the ground then reaching up high
  • Activities that improve confidence

5. Dyspraxia

Children with dyspraxia have difficulties with motor planning and execution. As babies, they may have significant feeding difficulties. Children may exhibit limited concentration, constant bumping into objects while moving, lack of sense of danger, and persistent language and cognitive difficulties.

Children with symptoms from this subtype can benefit from:

  • Trying to catch bubbles or scarves in the air
  • Playing catch or hand-to-hand passing activities
  • Bouncing on balls, rockers or jumping on seesaws
  • See the help of a Speech-Language Pathologist when needed

The Soundsory 40 day home-based program helps improve motor and cognitive abilities. The program consists of specially designed music processed with neuro-acoustic modifications as well as a series of movement-based exercises.

6. Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD)

Children with Sensory Discrimination Disorder have difficulty interpreting sensory information as it pertains to the eight sensory systems discussed earlier:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Tactile
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Vestibular
  • Proprioception (determining/interpreting characteristics of sensory stimuli experienced through use of the muscles and joints)
  • Interoception (interpreting stimulation from internal organs) someone with SPD affecting this sensory system may not feel need to use the toilet or may have frequent somatic complaints such as stomach aches

Children with symptoms from this subtype can benefit from:

Activities for this subtype vary widely due to the vast number of possible symptoms. A qualified therapist is best able to determine the best sensory diet for the child with SSD.

In addition to the activities listed above, there are specialized sensory stimulation programs available to help enhance the effectiveness of therapy for children with SPD. Programs such as Sensory Integration Therapy (SIT), Soundsory, or Forbrain, provide a multi-sensory therapy experience and have been shown to improve therapy outcomes for children with SPD.

Subtypes of SPD delve into the intricacies of a person’s exact sensory processing difficulties. Symptoms often overlap and can also change abruptly, making subtype-specific activities essential tools for caregivers and people with SPD themselves. Assessing a child’s particular sensory needs and prescribing a sensory diet is integral in helping them reach their full potential. Speech-Language Pathologists and Occupational Therapists who are well-trained in SPD and familiar with subtypes can help.