Although Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) has previously been thought to be a facet of autism, it has since been recognised as a stand-alone disorder which can exist alongside or separately from autism. Since SPD is its own diagnosis it is important to recognise the signs and symptoms in order to treat it effectively.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
SPD is a neurophysiological condition which affects people whose brains struggle to process or integrate stimuli because sensory signals are not picked up or sorted into the appropriate responses by the brain. The condition was previously named Sensory Integration Disorder for this reason.
For people with SPD, the brain can either over or under-process sensory information, causing a spectrum of issues from sensory overload (hypersensitivity) to an inability to experience sensory information at all (hyposensitivity). Someone experiencing hypersensitivity may adopt a sensory-avoiding approach when they feel overwhelmed, while someone experiencing hyposensitivity become sensory-seeking in a bid for heightened sensory stimulation.
It is worth noting that sufferers of SPD can also switch between both tendencies depending on factors such as the time of day and their environment, so while they may be sensory avoiding at home they could display signs of sensory-seeking in a different social setting, or vice versa. This means symptoms are not predictable, and someone with SPD may not present with a typical combination of symptoms.
Sensory Processing Disorder Symptoms
There are a number of signs of SPD and someone with SPD may experience some or all of the general symptoms. SPD sufferers may present symptoms in the following ways:
- Inability to understand where their bodies are in terms of how much space they take up and where they are in relation to other people and objects leading to clumsiness, knocking things over, or bumping into people.
- An intolerance of certain textures, such as seams, labels, rough or itchy fabrics like wool, and different food textures. (Hypersensitivity)
- Aversity to physical touch from others. (Hypersensitivity)
- Constantly touching things. (Hyposensitivity)
- Slow response to extreme heat or extreme cold. (Hyposensitivity)
- Taking physical risks or being rough due to a high pain threshold and disregard for the personal space of others. (Hyposensitivity)
- Difficulties with fine motor skills, such as writing or fiddly tasks.
- An intolerance of loud or sudden noises such as dogs barking or sirens, and the need to find a quiet place when in a noisy setting. (Hypersensitivity)
- Anxiety in response to bright lights or colours. (Hypersensitivity)
These are just some symptoms of SPD and this list is not exhaustive.
Sensory Processing Disorder Tools
Although there is no medication available for SPD, there are a number of strategies to help alleviate the symptoms.
Occupational Therapy or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help SPD sufferers learn coping mechanisms to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed or distressed. Treatment can include learning self-awareness to spot the signs of SPD and self-soothe before experiencing distress. Some therapists may also recommend using a sensory diet.
This includes practical techniques which allow SPD sufferers to self-regulate using a variety of sensory experiences. For example, a calming sensory room can help create a soothing space using LED bubble tubes, LED projections, and fibre optics. While out and about, carrying a sensory object with them can help SPD sufferers to self-regulate in busy areas, at school, or at work. Sound boards and sensory toys can also help improve hand-eye coordination or fine motor skills, while incorporating combinations of visual, auditory, or tactile stimulation.
Explaining Sensory Processing Disorder isn’t always easy but by using a combination of sensory aids and appropriate therapy, SPD can become easier to regulate and manage over time.