What are the signs of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

There are many different signs or symptoms of sensory processing disorder (SPD). You, a family member, or a teacher may have picked up on certain behaviors and wonder if your child is having difficulties processing sensory input. 

The signs of can sensory processing disorder vary greatly, as SPD affects everyone differently. 

What is sensory processing disorder

Sensory processing disorder is when the sensory input received is not interpreted accurately and results in a behavior. Read up more on SPD here

Some kids seek more input in certain sensory categories and some may be overly sensitive to input in a category and want to avoid it. This is called hyposensitive (seeker) and hypersensitive (avoider). 

The seeker

Often kids that are seekers are always on the move, they may also appear more aggressive or fearless as they seek an increased level of input. They may have difficulties focusing, sitting down for any length of time, or staying on task. 

Here are a few other behaviors you may see:

  • Touches people or objects consistently
  • Often in others personal space
  • Likes to be messy or doesn’t notice when messy
  • Likes the deep pressure from tight hugs, wrapping up in a blanket, ‘burrowing’ in the pillows
  • Walks on tiptoes
  • Bumps into walls, objects, or people
  • Appears clumsy
  • Plays too rough with others or toys
  • Loud
  • Seems to have a high pain tolerance
  • Always on the move, fidgets a lot, and has difficulties sitting still
  • Easily distracted and has difficulties focusing

The avoider

A child that is an avoider can become overwhelmed in new, busy, crowded, or otherwise overstimulating environments. This may lead to meltdowns due to difficulties processing the type and amount of sensory input coming in. They may want to go to a quiet space to calm down or feel safe. 

Here are a few other behaviors you may see:

  • Avoids touching others, certain textures or materials
  • Difficulties with clothing, won’t wear certain types of clothes or fabrics, may prefer to be naked
  • Bothered by tags and seams
  • Is a picky eater, has difficulties trying new foods
  • Covers ears with loud noises
  • Becomes easily upset or overwhelmed, possibly leading to a meltdown
  • Strong reactions to certain smells
  • May not like playground equipment- climbing, swinging, jumping
  • Becomes upset when feet are off the ground, like when being picked up
  • Difficulties with showers and washing hair
  • Struggles with haircuts
  • May seek out being in quiet places
  • Difficulties with change in routine or transitions

Seeker? Avoider? Both?

Remember a child typically won’t fall cleanly into one category, you can be a seeker and an avoider. So it’s not uncommon for you to notice that your child shows signs of both. 

Someone may seek heavy work/proprioceptive input for example but be hypersensitive and avoid vestibular input. 

You may also seek and avoid in the same sensory ‘category’.  Seeking tactile input in one way, such as touching or playing with different textures, fabrics, slimes, putty. But then avoiding touch to your head such as with hair washing, brushing, or cutting.

It’s also not uncommon for these to change day by day, or even change within the hour! That can become confusing at times, but remember the sensory system is always taking in and processing input, sometimes an input may be okay and the next moment the system may be overstimulated and it is not. 

Our sensory systems are complex and ever-changing. One moment you may feel like you understand the sensory needs of your child and the next you may feel like you have no clue!

It’s okay, remember, the more you understand sensory processing and the sensory systems the better equipped you will be to recognize what’s going on with your child and help. 

Now what?

If you think your child may have difficulties with SPD speak with their pediatrician. Often they will refer you to an Occupational Therapist (OT) to begin treatment. Helping your child more effectively process sensory input is the goal of treatment. This allows them to engage more easily and successfully with their environment. 

Treatment typically will involve a sensory diet. A sensory diet is an activity diet that helps fulfill the sensory needs of the child. In time a sensory diet can also help to improve overall sensory processing. There are many different ways to implement a sensory diet, and it can take time to find the right activities. You can read more about how sensory processing disorder is treated here

Just the begining

As you can imagine, with multiple sensory systems and the various ways people process sensory input, there are so many different ways sensory processing disorder can present. 
The few examples given here barely scratch the surface. To dive a bit deeper check out the Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist.

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