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Sensory Processing Disorder

Every second of our lives we are bombarded with sensory information. Everything we see, hear, feel, taste and smell is somehow interpreted and filtered by the brain so that we don’t suffer from sensory overload. Imagine what it would be like if we were aware of everything. We would be paralyzed by our inability to process all the information.

Sensory Processing Disorder (sometimes also referred to as sensory integration dysfunction) is a condition characterized by such an overload of sense data. Children with sensory processing disorders misinterpret everyday sensory information, such as the five basic senses (touch, sound, sight, smell, taste) as well movement-related sensory input sense of movement (vestibular system), and/or the positional sense (proprioception). Someone with this disorder has trouble responding to the world in a “normal” way. They may be perceiving all sound as equal, thereby being unable to communicate or respond to verbal instruction. Conversely, they could be suffering from sensory deprivation, and seek out sensory stimulation through constant movement and touching.

Some indications that a child may have sensory integration disorder include:

  • Acute sensitivity to certain types clothing (frequently “scratchy” cloth such as denim or tags on the back of shirts)
  • Problems with coordination
  • Unusually active or inactive
  • Stares for long periods at fans and water
  • Dislikes having physical contact with other people
  • Dislikes touching “strange” textures, such as sand or paste
  • Specific food aversions frequently linked with texture
  • Dislikes grooming practices like brushing teeth and combing hair
  • Acutely sensitive to background noise

Some children with sensory processing disorder may be unable to combine activities. They may be unable to talk while they are walking or unable to walk when there’s background noise. They may have difficulty paying attention and may need to constantly shift from one activity to another.

These children may develop emotional problems stemming from their inability to make sense of the world. They may not have the social skills necessary for making friends because of their seemingly irrational behavior. In fact, they could be seen as aggressive, for example, if they are seeking out physical contact to stimulate their sense of touch.


A child with sensory processing disorder will ideally be treated by a specially trained occupational therapist. The therapist will attempt to “integrate” the senses of the child through a process of stimulating and calming the “near” senses (touch, gravity, and sensations provided by muscles and joints). This will help the brain to process sensory information in an appropriate manner.

The therapy will be tailored to suit each individual child. The range of responses can be surprising. Some children show an improvement in speech when they are bounced. Other show an improvement in receptiveness while doing eye exercises.

It’s believed that by stimulating the senses in a controlled manner the neurotransmitters in the brain are being balanced and trained to respond accurately. The parts of the brain that are being affected are responsible for sensory processing. They include the brain stem, medulla, the cerebellum, and the limbic system.

Parents will play an active role in their child’s therapy by providing activities for them. Actions that involve muscle use and compression of the joints can have a calming effect. This also help with equilibrium problems and focusing attention. Activities in this category include common household chores like opening the garage door, carrying a laundry basket, raking leaves or sweeping the floor, and moving furniture for cleaning.

“Fun” activities in this category can be things like climbing rocks or trees, bouncing on a trampoline, swimming, and swinging on a rope. Small, enclosed environments (like a tent), can have a calming influence on children who are over stimulated. Likewise, steady rhythmic sounds can be very soothing.

A child with problems in coordination can be allowed to sit or lie down on the floor to provide them with greater stability when doing activities. If the child is under responsive, he can be stimulated by frequent changes in environment and by providing a variety of textures and colors.

SPD and Hearing loss

Children who have either partial or total hearing loss are especially vulnerable to sensory processing disorder. The inner ear affects the sense of balance and gravity which play a major part in the processing of the other senses. The cochlea also plays an important role in sensory integration. If hearing impairment affects sensory integration it can lead to learning disorders and emotional problems.

Auditory development plays an important role in cognitive function, and the brain’s ability to properly process sense data may be impaired because of a hearing loss problem. The loss of auditory sense stimulation can be compensated for by the same techniques used in treating sensory processing disorder.


Sensory processing disorder can be hard to recognize. The symptoms can confusingly range from hyperactivity to under activity. It is often misdiagnosed as a learning disorder or ADHD. A child may be very bright but has problems with coordination. He may be fearful of playground equipment, or, at the other extreme, maybe reckless to the point of putting himself at danger.

Proper and early diagnosis of sensory processing disorder can help the child develop to his or her full potential. Misdiagnosis, on the other hand, may lead to emotional and developmental problems that could haunt the child for the rest of his life. Such a child would be at higher risk for delinquency, substance abuse, and high stress levels.

Children who are being treated for a sensory processing disorder are often enthusiastic participants. They unconsciously seek out situations which will stimulate and nourish their senses. Treatment gives them the chance to grow and the chance to experience the world fully.

Click here to make an appointment with the California Ear Institute to consult with one of our board certified Otologists regarding your child’s ear-related condition.


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