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Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder

Signs Your Child Has Sensory Processing Disorder

Are you wondering whether your child could have Sensory Processing Disorder — or wondering what it even is? To help, we've rounded up some of the basics on the condition, as well as key signs of Sensory Processing Disorder in children of different ages.

Sensory Processing Disorder Basics

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD, formerly called Sensory Integration Dysfunction) is a condition resulting when sensory signals are received but not interpreted normally by the nervous system. As Athena Y. shares: "My 5-year-old daughter's problem focuses mainly with touch...Her brain misinterprets certain feelings and temperature as pain or she just does not feel the pain. When she was two [her] clothing hurt her, she could not be touched; even brushing up on her just walking by would frustrate her to the point of tears. She could not stand the feeling or temperature of the water at bath time."

Children with SPD may be hypersensitive (overresponsive to sensory stimulation) or hyposensitive (underresponsive to sensory experiences), or both. As Amy L. explains: "It varies a lot from one child to the next; most have mixed reactions, oversensitive to some things and undersensitive to others."


How common is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Different studies have suggested that anywhere from 1 in 20 to 1 in 6 children experience sensory symptoms that could affect their everyday lives.

What is the treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder?

Occupational therapy is the main form of treatment for children with Sensory Processing Disorder. Often, the disorder is not treated until a child has reached at least age 4 and a half (and some contend diagnosis and treatment should be held off until age 6 or 7).

Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder

The signs of Sensory Processing Disorder vary widely between different children. Still, there are common red flags to look for. The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation lists the following signs of SPD by age.

In infants and toddlers

  • Has problems eating.
  • Refuses to go to anyone but the primary caretaker.
  • Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
  • Is extremely irritable when being dressed; seems to be uncomfortable in clothes.
  • Rarely plays with toys, especially those requiring dexterity.
  • Has difficulty shifting focus from one object/activity to another.
  • Does not notice pain or is slow to respond when hurt.
  • Resists cuddling, arches back away from the person holding him.
  • Cannot calm self by sucking on a pacifier, looking at toys, or listening to parent's voice.
  • Has a "floppy" body, bumps into things and has poor balance.
  • Does little or no babbling, vocalizing.
  • Is easily startled.
  • Is extremely active and is constantly moving body/limbs or runs endlessly.
  • Seems to be delayed in crawling, standing, walking, or running.

In preschool-aged children

  • Difficulty being toilet trained.
  • Is overly sensitive to stimulation, overreacts to or does not like touch, noise, smells, etc.
  • Is unaware of being touched/bumped unless done with extreme force/intensity.
  • Has difficulty learning and/or avoids performing fine motor tasks such as using crayons and fasteners on clothing.
  • Seems unsure how to move his/her body in space, is clumsy and awkward.
  • Has difficulty learning new motor tasks.
  • Is in constant motion.
  • Gets in everyone else's space and/or touches everything around him.
  • Has difficulty making friends (overly aggressive or passive/withdrawn).
  • Is intense, demanding, or hard to calm and has difficulty with transitions.
  • Has sudden mood changes and temper tantrums that are unexpected.
  • Seems weak, slumps when sitting/standing; prefers sedentary activities.
  • It is hard to understand child's speech.
  • Does not seem to understand verbal instructions.

School-aged children

  • Overly sensitive to stimulation, overreacts to or does not like touch, noise, smells, etc.
  • Is easily distracted in the classroom, often out of his/her seat, fidgety.
  • Is easily overwhelmed at the playground, during recess, and in class.
  • Is slow to perform tasks.
  • Has difficulty performing or avoids fine motor tasks such as handwriting.
  • Appears clumsy and stumbles often, slouches in chair.
  • Craves rough housing, tackling/wrestling games.
  • Is slow to learn new activities.
  • Is in constant motion.
  • Has difficulty learning new motor tasks and prefers sedentary activities.
  • Has difficulty making friends (overly aggressive or passive/withdrawn).
  • "Gets stuck" on tasks and has difficulty changing to another task.
  • Confuses similar sounding words, misinterprets questions or requests.
  • Has difficulty reading, especially aloud.
  • Stumbles over words; speech lacks fluency, and rhythm is hesitant.

For more information, visit the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation.

Image Source: Thinkstock
lauragrace42957 lauragrace42957 3 years

I have a 10yr old daughter with LF Autistic Disorder, Global Developmental Delay, Hypermobility Syndrome, Pica and severe behavioural problems. I agree to your statement to a point but must point out that the majority of the time (in the UK) the parents have little choice as to where their children are educated. Despite my daughter's problems and the fact that she has a learning age of just 6yrs, she has been placed in a mainstream school with 18hours of support per week (not even one-to-one support most of the time). She is in a class of 10/11yr old mainstream children and yes, disrupts lessons regularly. I have requested a transition to a Special Needs School on several occasions but the local authority don't consider her to be "extreme enough" to warrant the move. This not only disrupts the education of the other children in the class, but also the teacher's focus and her own education. So please don't blame the parents when it comes to this matter, sometimes we have no choice.

BethWankel BethWankel 3 years

I want so hard to keep commenting, but I don't participate in online fire fights. The important thing is that SPD is becoming more mainstream, so people can diagnose their children earlier, and get the treatment they need.

BethWankel BethWankel 3 years

My son just started first grade, and he was having issues again after 18 months or so on track. His teacher just needed a crash course in SPD. He uses a textured seat cushion and sometimes squeezes a stress ball to help with concentration. That's it. And now, he's NOT a distraction and a problem for her. Kids vary greatly in severity with all behavioral issues.

BethWankel BethWankel 3 years

I'm mostly weirded out that people are "thumbs-downing" this article :( This is a really good broad view of symptoms, and if you're curious you should talk to your child's teacher or pediatrician. Our preschool was instrumental in helping us get a diagnosis. Our son (now 6) was overly aggressive with his peers. Turns out he was "afraid" the other kids were going to touch him. I think a lot of other schools or day cares would just have written him off as a trouble maker, maybe even asked us to leave. More education for the public is very important.

BethWankel BethWankel 3 years

It's very common in kids with autism.

RhiannonJajoo RhiannonJajoo 3 years

I'll admit it is scary. As a mom of an autistic child I know that as many as 1 in 73 children are considered autistic with more and more everyday. In twenty years the whole landscape is going to change and we don't even know what is causing it. Don't worry about the teachers though. In our school district they put all the integrated school children in one class and that teacher gets two specially trained aides that stay in the room at all times and just focus on those kids. Also, just because the law requires that all children have access to a public school education does not mean that the more serious cases are put in classes with the general Ed children. They still have separate special education classrooms.

Manpreet21714 Manpreet21714 3 years

In which state are you ?

RhiannonJajoo RhiannonJajoo 3 years

Most of these symptoms are the same as the ones for autism

CharleneWilcox37561 CharleneWilcox37561 3 years

OPS EDUCATION!!!! Is The Way...

LaurenSpeakman LaurenSpeakman 3 years

They are teaching him how to recognize when his "engine" is moving too fast and what he can do to slow it down to "just right". They do exercises that I can do at home with him like joint compressions, weight-bearing activities, jumping, wheel barrows, bear hugs, hanging from monkey bars, etc. Something as easy as stopping what he is doing and pushing on the wall for a minute can "reset" him and get him back on track. It has been amazing and he is really starting to show improvement. I also switched him to an all day pre-school (he is 4) that is in an elementary school. The class size is small to help limit the stimulation and ensure that there is more engagement. His teacher is amazing and has taken all of my leads on how to bring him back around when he starts to spin off. The format of the classroom also allows for constant stimulation as they change venues frequently (ie. gym class, music class, art class) to keep him engaged. I can't say that it is any one thing that is making the difference, but when I pick him up from school, he is centered, calm and reserved in a way that he never was able to be before. I hope this helps. Also, we worked with our pediatrician to get coverage for the OT. With many insurance plans, if there is a diagnosis of ADHD for the child, the OT is covered by insurance. This helps greatly with the cost as we now only have to pay a $35 co-pay. If you have any other questions, I am happy to help. It took us a while to find this option for our son and find a situation that works for him. There is no clear path out there for parents.

mslamb1376831094 mslamb1376831094 3 years

I just got the new yesterday that my son that could possibly be ADHD might benefit from OT for Sensory Processing. What kinds of activities do they do for this in OT?

LaurenSpeakman LaurenSpeakman 3 years

Hi, We are currently in the process of treating my son with OT for Sensory Processing Disorder. He is classified as "sensory seeking" which means that his little brain does not recognize all of the sensory input that his body experiences. Therefore he seeks out additional stimulation. We were in the throes of having him diagnosed with ADHD when the doctor suggested OT for sensory issues and it has really made an amazing difference! I wonder how many parents out there are under the impression that their children have ADHD when it is really a SPD? I am happy that this article has made it to the main stream.

kristinaestabrook1383269109 kristinaestabrook1383269109 3 years
Hi, I have a question and I don't know if this is the right place to ask..but my son hs some of the things in school aged area.....and I'm not sure if it's spd ot ptsd area but....He doesn's show emotions...for example when my mom passed he didn't cry or show sadness or anything he just asked if we could stop talking so he could go play and I ws just wondering if its spd or ptsd? so if anyone could help i would appreciate it,,,,thank you kristina
GermaineMontgomery GermaineMontgomery 5 years
Are you aware that some of these children that have this are also sensitives? yes they can see spirits and some can communicate with the spirits.I'm now crazy, not that I care what anyone thinks only small minds don't understand that there are things bigger than us in this world. a lot will be revealed to us all in the very near future. anyway I remember my son holding his ears when someone would speak loudly. He has also know to get over excited about certain things and seemingly nonchalant about other things. well he's doing much better now. Hey Happy Holidays!
JanMol JanMol 5 years
My son has SPD, it's nice to see a mainstream article about the disorder. When he was diagnosed most people had no idea that children could have the sensory issues normally associated with autism without being autistic.
alannajohnson12153 alannajohnson12153 5 years
i had this when i was a kid. i still do i do not feel pain the way most people do. i was burned as a child and my mom did not know about it until bath time cause i did not even cry once. i fell down the stairs and would get back up. i never felt the pain. now i think my daugther has a different way of it she feels too much ... her clothes some time hurt her ... noise send her off the deep end. my son he dont seen to have any thing out of the normal but his ADHD lol
KimElliott61572 KimElliott61572 5 years
My 6 year old has this. His is mainly noises and sound... He can't stand certain pitches and loud noises. His kindergarten classroom has over 20 kids in it and he gets very over stimulated. He doesn't how to handle it. His school and us have had to put him in a "mock classroom" with just him and his Para where he goes to his specials classes with his class and goes into the special ed class with just under 15 kids in there at any given time to try to get him used to the "business" of the class. He's getting better, but it's taking time.
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