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What is sensory processing disorder?

Aug 31, 2021

Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD, is not something that most people have heard of, and those who have usually associate it with Autism and the meltdowns cause by sensory overload. Contrary to this popular belief, those with autism aren’t the only people who experience sensory processing difficulties. It’s a not so fun little freebie that often comes along with other kinds of neurodiversities. But the question still stands; what exactly is it?


The psychological community like to debate over whether Sensory Processing Disorder can be classed as a stand-alone disorder, or whether it is simply a symptom of something else. Broadly speaking, SPD (also known as sensory integration dysfunction) is a condition in which the central nervous system is not able to correctly process sensory information and organise it into an appropriate response. This can cause an individual to be over or under sensitive to sensory stimuli.

The affect it has on different people varies wildly from person to person, even as to which sense it affects and how. For some people it only affects one sense, for example one’s sensitivity to light or sound. For other’s it can affect multiple senses to varying severity.

Different kinds of SPD:

Most people are unaware that there are multiple types of sensory processing disorders. If people understand anything about it, it’s usually the connection with autism and sensory overload. This is a very specific kind however, and not all types manifest in this way.

Sensory Modulation Disorder

This is what most people assume SPD looks like. People with this condition have difficulty regulating the intensity and nature of their responses to sensory input. In simple terms, this is classic SPD. Sensory information received is either magnified, or dimmed down.

Common Symptoms:

  • Withdrawing from light or unexpected touches
  • Gagging or refusing to eat certain foods because of the texture
  • Preference for certain textures of clothing
  • Becoming overwhelmed by sensory input
  • Sensory Discrimination Disorder

This makes it difficult for people to assign proper meaning and qualities to stimuli. Many struggle to recognise and interpret the characteristics of various stimuli and find it difficult to discern the difference between stimuli that are similar in nature. This particular form is often associated with dyspraxia more than autism.

Common Symptoms

  • Difficulty manipulating an object when it is out of sight
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Trouble distinguishing between similar sounds
  • Problems finding an image in a cluttered background
  • Uses too much or too little force
  • Poor balance
  • Poor sense of movement speed
  • Postural-Ocular Disorder

This can cause a person to have difficulty controlling or stabilising their body both during movement or rest. Muscles may be hypo, or hypertonic (abnormally low or high muscle tone respectively). People who experience this form of SPD often have unstable joints and have poor ocular-motor control.


Is it a disorder in it’s own right?

This is where professionals are divided. Whilst no one is questioning the genuine nature of the syptoms of SPD and the effect it can have on people, psychologists are divided when it comes to whether or not it can be considered a stand alone condition. Most commonly it is associated with Autism as we have already seen, however it is also often a major part of ADHD, PTSD, panic disorders, learning disabilities, and fragile x chromosome. In fact the NHS does not list it as an individual condition, nor does it have an individual web par for it.

The problem is is that many people who are diagnosed with a psychological or developmental disorder are often not simply diagnosed with one simple cut and dry problem, and anxiety features heavily for most of these people, whether they have autism or PTSD or simply a panic disorder. No matter the cause the anxiety it creates is all to real for those who struggle with it. You can’t change how your brain processes sensory information and as such it is not something that one can become accustomed to or use exposure therapy to overcome.

Supporting someone with SPD

There are a lot of little things that can be done to support someone with SPD, and none of these very complicated. If they are sensitive to sound, why not let them wear noise cancelling headphones in the office? If they are sensitive to light, seat them away from the brightest part of the room. But as ever, whether you’re supporting a colleague, friend, family member, the golden rule remains the same. Listen, talk, be open about it. The person with the condition themselves is going to be most knowledgeable regarding what they are or aren’t sensitive to, so let them guide you in how best to support their needs.

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