Sensory processing (SP), sometimes called sensory integration (SI), is a concept that
refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them
into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. All the things we do, from riding a
skateboard, to eating pizza, to doing homework, requires processing sensation or sensory integration.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that exists when sensory
signals don't get organized into appropriate responses. People with SPD are able to
receive sensory information. However, since that information is processed differently in
the brain they respond differently than typically expected, which makes things more
difficult to do. Pioneering occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD,
likened SPD to a neurological "traffic jam" that prevents certain parts of the brain from
receiving the signals needed to interpret sensory information correctly. A person with
SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses,
which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Signs of SPD include:
difficulty planning and organizing, carrying out self care skills and activities of daily
living, and completing school work or job tasks; avoiding activities; frequent distress or
agitation; and fear of trying new things. If the disorder is not treated effectively,
behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure and other issues may result.
Sensory Processing Disorder is most commonly diagnosed in children, but people who
reach adulthood without treatment also experience symptoms and continue to be affected
by their inability to accurately and appropriately interpret sensory messages. Such
undiagnosed adults may have difficulty performing routines and activities involved in
work, close relationships, and recreation. Having struggled with SPD for most of their
lives, they may also experience depression, underachievement, social isolation, and/or
other secondary effects.
Sensory Processing Disorder can affect people in only one sense–for example, just touch or just sight or just movement–or in multiple senses. Sensations can be experienced as too much or too little for someone with SPD. For example, one person with SPD may over-respond to sensation and find clothing, physical contact, light, sound, food, or other sensory input to be unbearable. Another might under-respond, and show little or no reaction to stimulation, even pain or extreme hot and cold. If sensory processing of the muscles and joints are impaired, posture and motor skills can be affected. Some children may exhibit an appetite for sensation that is in perpetual overdrive. It is these kids that can sometimes be misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD
When you examine their symptoms side by side, there are some striking similarities
between ADHD and SPD as well as several differences. The two conditions don’t
necessarily go hand in hand, but they often do. Children with ADHD and SPD display
some of the following issues and behaviors: hyperactivity, lack of focus, fidgeting and
impulsivity. A hyperactive child with either ADHD or SPD might run and skip through
the halls on the way from one class to another. A child struggling to focus on a reading
assignment might have ADHD or SPD. Excessive fidgeting by repeatedly touching a toy
or moving about in one’s seat reflects both SPD and ADHD. The effects of SPD and
ADHD cause learning difficulties, create challenges with peer relationships, and reduce a child or adult’s ability to comply and complete activities.
Dr. Lucy Jane Miller, a well known researcher who has studied Sensory Processing
Disorder, noted some fundamental differences in the behaviors observed with ADHD vs.
SPD children. She found that ADHD children display the following:
• Cannot stop impulsive behavior regardless of sensory input
• Crave novelty and activity that is not necessarily related to specific sensations
• Do not become more organized after receiving sensory input
• Have difficulty waiting or taking turns
• Wait or take turns better with cognitive rather than sensory input
• Tend to talk all the time, impulsively interrupting, have trouble waiting for a turn
in any conversation
For some children with SPD, sensory input can often feel like an assault coming from all
directions. A child might have difficulty listening in class because they are disturbed by
the tag in the back of their shirt, can’t sit still because of the line in their sock, and are
distracted from the noise of kids in the hallway.
For others, outside stimuli are dulled, as if a shade has been pulled over the environment, muting sights, sounds, and touch. These children seek extra stimulation to arouse themselves, much like one might need a cold shower to wake-up after a sleepless night. These are the kids who love to spin and swing upside down. Most children with SPD display elements of both extremes, suffering from sensory overload at some times, seeking stimulation at others. It’s not difficult to see how these symptoms, distractibility, fidgeting, the need for intense activity, and problems with social interactions, could seem like ADHD.
Because Sensory Processing Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder overlap, parents, teachers and medical professionals may mistake one condition for the other. In cases when ADHD and SPD do coexist, it is important to distinguish one from the other because their treatments are different. This is why the ADHD Center for Success recognizes the importance of evaluating Sensory Processing in the context of an ADHD evaluation.
In addition to our comprehensive ADHD evaluation, the ADHD Center for Success
utilizes the internationally recognized Sensory Profile developed by Winnie Dunn in
1999. The Sensory Profile has several forms. In children, the assessment is done by
parent report, and in Adolescents/Adults, through self-report. It is a measure of the
person’s responses to sensory events in daily life, and is used to assess a person’s sensory related difficulties, and better understand the complexities of their sensory processing. The Sensory Profile gathers critical information relating to home, school, or work that can assist in designing strategies for managing daily life.
Resources on Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation
Time Magazine Article on Sensory Processing Disorder
Support and Resources for SPD Families