Living with Sensory Processing Disorder


Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder is defined as “a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses”. Not all children with SPD have autism, but almost all children with autism also have SPD. Children who struggle with this challenge are usually in a state of either over-arousal (hypersensitive to touch, sound, etc.) or under-arousal.

To help identify which category your child may fall under, consider the following symptoms from the table below.

Sensory Input Over-arousal Under-arousal
Touch Avoids touch or textures, “picky eater” Mouths objects, trouble chewing food, rubs body or head against objects, squeezes body into tight spaces
Sound Startles easily Seems unresponsive to most noise, not easily disturbed by sudden noises, enjoys loud music
Motion Avoids rapid motion or swinging motion. Appears anxious during or after swinging, spinning, or riding. Enjoys swinging and spinning and being in an upside-down position. Seeks out high-intensity motion experiences.


Coping with Over-Arousal

For a child in a state of over-arousal, it is most helpful to minimize sensory experiences and keep noise, sound, and motion to controlled tolerable levels whenever possible. Introduce new experiences slowly and carefully to help the child process the sensory input. Experiences where the child is bombarded with sensory information (shopping malls, parties, etc) should be avoided when possible. When you need to take your child to a shopping mall or party, plan carefully in advance to make the experience as easy for your child to handle as possible.


Coping with Under-Arousal

For children who appear to be in a state of under-arousal, a sensory diet is often recommended. The sensory diet is a regimen of activities designed to suit the individual needs of your child. The sensory input in your regimen are high-intensity experiences that “wake up” your child’s systems, allowing him to process more information in his brain, because that information is finally being registered. The sensory diet also helps your child regulate his behavior, because it brings him to a state of equilibrium, which can be described as feeling comfortable in his own skin.

Contrary to popular belief, the sensory diet is not developed and implemented by a professional alone. As a parent, you know your child best, and you will have an important role in developing and implementing the sensory diet.


Developing Your Child’s Sensory Diet


The sensory diet is not like a weight-loss diet you go on, where you need to stop eating the foods you love and switch to carrot sticks and kale. Rather, the sensory diet is a fun way for parent and child to bond while addressing the child’s sensory needs in a playful and engaging way.


Whenever I develop a sensory diet for a child, I always ask the parent to “look for the smile”, or the kinds of sensory input this child tends to seek out and enjoy. This takes some careful observation and experimentation, but your child will usually show you what his needs are once your eyes are opened to them.


For example, a child who often lies with his back to the floor is seeking tactile input throughout his body. A child who spins in circles needs high-intensity motion. A child rubbing his head on the wall or floor is seeking deep-pressure tactile experiences. These observations should be noted, and recorded for future reference. Your child’s sensory needs may change and evolve, so keep an eye on finding the smile!


One thing that always surprises parents is how fun and satisfying it is to help their child with his sensory needs. Children who crave intense input demonstrate tremendous pleasure when their needs are met, and parents and teachers frequently note how much happier the child seems once on his sensory regiment.


For now, take some time to “find the smile” in your child. If you can, talk over your ideas with a professional on your child’s team. Next week, I’ll give you a few activities to experiment with when developing your sensory diet. Good luck!