Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory Processing Disorder
Written by Kelsie Goller, MA, LPC-S, RPT
Clinical Director, KPS
One of the assessments that psychological evaluations sometimes include is an evaluation that measures whether children or adults are sensory seeking or sensory avoiding. Likewise, one of the issues that children and adults frequently report when walking into the counselor’s office is a disorder that is not yet formally recognized by medical/psychological diagnostic manuals, though it is frequently observed by occupational therapists, mental health therapists, and psychologists: Sensory Processing Disorder.
Sensory Processing Disorder is when the brain has difficulty receiving and acting upon messages sent from a person’s senses. The eight sensory systems include:
the tactile system (touch, feelings on the skin)
the auditory system (hearing, interpreting sounds, filtering auditory stimuli)
the visual system (seeing, scanning the environment)
the gustatory system (tasting, experiencing textures in the mouth)
the olfactory system (smell)
the proprioceptive system (sensing where the parts of our body are and what they are doing- contracting, pressing, stretching)
the vestibular system (sensing where our body is in relation to gravity and space- spinning, standing, sitting, laying down, moving, being still, etc.)
the interoception system (sensing the internal body sensations, such as hunger, thirst, need to go to the bathroom, temperature changes, pain.)
Somewhere between 5 and 16.5% of people have a sensory processing disorder, with higher prevalence amongst those diagnosed with ADHD and Autism (Miller et al., 2017). A person may be either sensory-seeking (seeking more sensory input because their senses are under-responding) or sensory-avoiding (seeking less sensory input because their senses are over-responding). Additionally, to complicate matters, you can be sensory-seeking in regards to some senses while sensory-avoiding regarding other senses. That is why it can be helpful to have a sensory profile completed during a psychological evaluation. Sensory sensitivity can take many forms. It can look like a child who accidentally hurts others by wrestling too hard, unaware of the amount of pressure they are applying. It can look like an aversion to tags, socks, or certain fabrics. It can look like a distaste for bright lights or loud noises. It can mean either craving or avoiding strong flavors or food textures. It can be the child who accidentally breaks their pencil frequently by applying too much pressure or the child who hates to be hugged. It can be the child who doesn’t notice the body signal telling them they need to take a bathroom break or the child who is hypersensitive to pain.
If a sensory processing disorder is indicated, it can be very helpful to work with an occupational therapist to work towards sensory integration (helping our brains to process, organize, and respond to sensory input). A mental health therapist can also help with identifying upsetting/uncomfortable situations, engaging in solution-focused work regarding those situations, and learning to respond to the emotions that often come with a mismatch between the sensory environment and sensory sensitivity. Five further resources can be found here:
Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals: this book simply lists over 210 common sensory needs with bullet points on how to respond to each. It is very practical!
8 Senses of the Body: the Hidden Sensory System- for a clear explanation of each of the eight senses, as well as what it looks like to be under-responding or over-responding to that sensory system, AND strategies that may help.
Growing Hands-On Kids Sensory Processing Resources- printables on sensory systems, blog posts on signs of sensory overload, and ideas for sensory play.
Your 8 Senses- for a more scientific, brain-based explanation of the sensory systems.
About Sensory Processing Disorder- an explanation from the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation.
Miller, L. J., Schoen, S. A., Mulligan, S., & Sullivan, J. (2017). Identification of Sensory Processing and Integration Symptom Clusters: A Preliminary Study. Occupational therapy international, 2017, 2876080. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/2876080