What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Some individuals don’t behave as we expect them to – not because they won’t, but because they can’t. Inefficient processing of sensory messages that come from their body and environment often cause this unexpected behaviour. They may withdraw from physical contact, refuse to participate in typical classroom and playground activities, or respond in an unusual way to ordinary sensations such as touch, movement, smells, and sounds.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is the most recent term used for a condition that was first recognised in the 1960s by Dr A. Jean Ayres, an American occupational therapist, educational psychologist, and neuroscientist. Jean Ayres used the terminology sensory integration dysfunction or sensory integration disorder.

Most of us are born with the ability to constantly manage sensory messages and organise them into the right response or behaviour.  We do this throughout our day, and most of the time are never aware of the significant amount of processing that is happening automatically in our brains.  For people with sensory processing disorder/sensory integration dysfunction this process is not happening as it should.  Jean Ayres likened this to a neurological ‘traffic jam’ in the brain.  This interferes with the way individuals process the sensations coming from their body and the world around them creating challenges in all aspects of life, for example learning, playing, motor skills, communicating with others, managing emotions to name a few.

“First person I have seen who understands children with sensory processing problems.”

Tom, Parent

What does sensory processing disorder look like?

Sensory processing disorder can look very different in different people.  One person may be more sensitive to some sensations, another person may be less sensitive, others may seek out or crave lots of sensory input.  For others, sensory processing disorder may be affecting their motor skill and coordination.  There is not a ‘one size fits all’.  Research in 2009 by Alice Carter and colleagues suggested that 1 in 6 children experiences differences in sensory processing that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life.

What are some of the symptoms of sensory processing disorder?

It is important to get a thorough assessment by a therapist with the appropriate post-graduate qualifications in sensory integration to identify a sensory processing disorder.

Here are some of the possible symptoms:

  • Avoids touch or being touched by objects and people
  • Has difficulty standing in line or close to other people
  • Dislikes having hair, fingernails or toenails cut
  • Avoidance of certain textures
  • Touches people and objects to the point of irritating others
  • Seeks out all kinds of movement and this interferes with daily routines (eg can’t sit still, fidgets)
  • Spins/twirls self frequently throughout the day
  • Takes excessive risks during play
  • Fear of heights and movement
  • Distress with certain sounds
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Aversion to certain smells and tastes
  • Disregard of sudden or loud sounds
  • Unaware of pain
  • Unaware of body sensations such as hunger, hot or cold
  • Lack of attention to environment, people, or things
  • Has coordination problems
  • Has difficulty planning motor tasks

Where can I find out more information?

If you would like to find out more about sensory processing disorder, then why not attend our introductory course.

“Really informative and accessible course that will give you lots of easy sensory regulation strategies and the reason as to why children may feel dysregulated” 

Amy, Class Teacher

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Julia is so knowledgeable in this field, so easy to listen to and such a competent teacher. I have thoroughly enjoyed the three days and could have carried on listening to her talk!

Meinir, Community Nurse

"I am going away with a repertoire of strategies to use in the classroom and a greater understanding of various behaviours." 

Lesley, Class Teacher

"Tutor inspirational and able to explain complex things very well" 

Alexandra, SENCO