Sensory Processing Unlocked! A key to understanding Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

The reactive behavior of an individual affected by sensory processing disorder (SPD) can be very puzzling to an outside observer. However, a simple explanation of sensory processing can change the perception of behaviors so they no longer seem out of place. 

What is sensory processing? Sensory processing is the brain’s organization of sensory messages from inside oneself as well as through interaction with the environment. These include messages from the well-known senses: touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight; in addition to less known, but equally important, senses of movement, balance, and body awareness (Wheble & Hong, 2006).

Why is sensory processing important? Meaningful interactions within the environment are essential for successful functioning in everyday activities.

What is sensory processing disorder? Sensory processing disorder (SPD) refer to the inability of the brain to effectively process sensory information. An individual may have difficulty recognizing the presence of sensory information, or in contrast have difficulty ignoring the presence of sensory information (Sweet, 2010, p.2).

Margarita Sweet is an Occupational Therapist who works with children with sensory processing dysfunction also known as sensory processing disorder (SPD) or sensory integration dysfunction. She described the effects of SPD on a child’s ability to function during everyday activities, such as focusing in school or playing on the playground (Sweet, 2010, p.2).

For example: 

Children appear comfortable as they actively participate in classroom lesson, an example of successful sensory integration.
Children appear comfortable and alert as they actively participate in a classroom lesson; an example of successful sensory integration. By: US Embassy Canada

Classroom success relies on integration of important sensory information  such as the sound of the teacher’s voice and the visual information the teacher posts on walls or boards. In contrast, extraneous, possibly distracting sensory information include the feeling of hard, cold seats and desks, the sounds of fidgety peers and hums of fluorescent lights, and colorful, cluttered classroom walls and bookshelves. For a child with SPD, they may feel so uncomfortable or distracted by their inability to ignore extraneous sensory information that they are unable to participate and meet typical classroom expectations.

What does sensory processing feel like? 

Hear the Point of View of a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder 


In the above video, a boy with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) describes experiencing difficulties during many daily activities such as:

  • Difficulty responding to loud and unexpected noises
  • Feeling uncomfortable in clothing because of tags, seams, buttons, or textures.
  • Difficulty making eye contact and interacting with peers
  • Difficulty tolerating transitions between activities, especially if unexpected


How can occupational therapy help?

Watch an Occupational Therapist Treat a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder

In the above video, the occupational therapist demonstrated several techniques for treating symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD. She described:

  • Differences between calming, alerting, and organizing sensory information
  • The use of movement, deep touch, and deep pressure to promote effective sensory integration
  • The unique role of occupational therapy in addressing a child’s specific sensory needs

Occupational therapists often use sensory integration strategies to increase a child’s ability to regulate their responses to environmental stimuli. Sensory integration treatments have been shown to have measurable positive outcomes in the areas of nighttime routines and sleeping, tactile discrimination (ability to identify and understand the environment through the sense of touch), self-dressing skills, participation in safe play, and planning and coordination with coloring activities. (Schaaf, Hunt, & Benevides, 2012).

Watch a reporter from Wall Street Journal describe treating children for Sensory Processing Disorder 

In the above video, the Wall Street reporter describes that:

  • Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is not classified as a medical diagnosis, and therefore treatment may be not be covered by insurance reimbursed differently by insurance
  • Symptoms of SPD are usually recognized between the ages of 2 and 7
  • Children with SPD are commonly also affected by disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • SPD can affect all of the senses differently
  • Occupational therapy services treat children with SPD through play based games and activities


Where to look for more detailed information? Popular media can be used to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of sensory processing and sensory processing disorder (SPD).  A comprehensive literature review revealed a high rate of accuracy and reliability in non-professional literature on SPD. For the most part, uniformity in terminology was high and popular media clips offered a unique and beneficial opportunity to visualize reliable information. However, it should be noted that there is a need for more evidence that scientifically supports the efficacy of sensory integration treatments for symptoms associated with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) (Schaaf et al., 2012).





Schaaf, R. C., Hunt, J., & Benevides, T. (2012). Occupational Therapy Using Sensory Integration to Improve Participation of a Child With Autism: A Case Report. American Journal Of Occupational Therapy, 66(5), 547-555. doi:10.5014/ajot.2012.004473

Sweet, M. (2010). Helping Children with Sensory Processing Disorders: The Role of Occupational Therapy.Odyssey: New Directions In Deaf Education, 11(1), 20-22.

Wheble, J., & Hong, C. (2006). Apparatus for enhancing sensory processing in children. International Journal Of Therapy & Rehabilitation,13(4), 177-181.