What is Sensory Disorder?

Have you been told your child has a sensory disorder?

Has a teacher, occupational therapist, psychologist or doctor talked to you about your child and mentioned sensory disorder or sensory processing disorder?

It’s scary to know that something is wrong with your child.  It’s frightening to hear words you may have never heard before to describe your child.  

There are a lot of different words used to describe the same thing by different people. 

Throughout this article sensory disorder and sensory processing disorder are used to mean the same thing. 

Occupational therapists, doctors and psychologists tend to use the words sensory processing disorder, parents often use the words sensory disorder.  Sometimes parents use the word sensory impairment as well.  In blogs, articles and books elsewhere you might see sensory processing disorder abbreviated to SPD.  In older blogs, articles and books you might see the words sensory integration disorder.  That is an older term occupational therapists used in the past.

To help you understand more about sensory disorder also known as sensory processing disorder, this article covers the following topics:

Sensory disorder or sensory processing disorder means that the brain has some sort of sensory impairment.  The brain has difficulty receiving, understanding and responding to the senses. 

There are the five senses that you probably know about: what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell.  It might surprise you to know that there are more than just five senses in your body.  In fact, there is no agreement on how many senses humans actually have. Some say you have more than 20 senses.  Most people think there are five senses.  In occupational therapy, we used to say there were seven senses.  We added the sense of balance and sense of movement to those first five senses. 

More recently, when talking about humans and in particular sensory disorders, Interoception, was identified as the eighth sense.  This eighth sense, Interoception, tells you that you are hungry, thirsty, breathing or need to go to the bathroom. 

Sensory disorder means that your brain has difficulty receiving information from, understanding and responding to any or all of these eight senses.  

What Exactly Does Sensory Processing Mean?

Processing means a series of actions to get a specific result.  Remember that our brains receive, understand and response to our senses.  Our brains have to organize information from our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, inner ear (balance), muscles and joints (movement) and organs (interoception) in order for our body to respond to it.  Your sense of balance and head movement is called your vestibular sense.  Your sense of your body movement is also called proprioception. You brain is complex. Your senses are complex.  You have many senses.  Not just five senses, but at least eight.  So sensory processing sensitivity can affect any of the senses.  Thus, there are many types of sensory processing disorder.

Here is a list of your eight senses:

  1. Visual (vision, see, sight, eyes))
  2. Auditory (hear, ears)
  3. Olfactory (smell, nose)
  4. Tactile (touch, feel, skin)
  5. Gustatory (taste, mouth)
  6. Vestibular (balance, head movement, inner ear)
  7. Proprioception (muscles, joints, body movement, move in space)
  8. Interoception (breathe, hunger, thirst, toilet, internal organs)

Sensory Sensitivity Explained

It is important to know that you as a human are a sensory being.  You have sensory sensitivity; you are sensitive to your senses.  It might help to replace with word sensitivity with preferences, meaning things you like and things you do not like. 

We all have sensory preferences. You do too.

You are on a sensory spectrum, so to speak, which means you enjoy or dislike a range of information from your senses.  Some people like perfume.  You may not like strong smells.  However, you may like spicy food.  Yet other people do not.  Some people like a heavy quilt to sleep.  You might like to sleep with only a light sheet and a breeze from a fan or open window.  Moreover, your range of sensory preferences can change from day to day.  That does not make you or your child have a sensory disorder or some sort of sensory impairment.

More Examples of Sensory Sensitivity

Think about this example. If you are tired, a noisy household might bother you, you might crave peace and quiet.  However, other times you might love having loud music on in the background and lots of friends or family visiting your house. 

Liking quiet one day and noise the next day does not mean you have a sensory disorder.  In the same vein, just because your child does not like the itch of a wool sweater does not mean your child has a sensory disorder.   On the other hand, if your child has great difficulty tolerating many types of clothes, even those without an itch factor, and has meltdowns about getting dressed every single day and the change of seasons and corresponding change in clothing type is also extra challenging, then a sensory processing disorder might be the cause.


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The Difference Between Hyposensitivity and Hypersensitivity

You have sensory sensitivity.  We all do. 

However, a sensory impairment or sensory disorder and difficulty receiving information from the senses means that your child might show hyposensitivity.  Hypo means low or below normal. 

Hyposensitivity means that your child’s brain receives information from the senses less or with less intensity.  Therefore, a child with a sensory disorder and hyposensitivity might show signs of sensory disorder like constantly touching things.  Hyposensitivity in this example, means touching things that is quite excessive and gets in the way of other learning and play.  It is OK that your child really likes to cuddle with a blanket and rub a soft toy to go to sleep or comfort themselves; this is not a sign of a sensory impairment.  It is not OK that your child cannot stop going around the room and touching everything in it, not being able to stop.  That is one sign of hyposensitivity manifested as excessive touching. Sometimes hyposensitivity is dangerous and a child will not feel pain as intensely as they should.  A child with hyposensitivity might not feel a cut or a burn or when they are hurt. 

In contrast, a child constantly having great difficulty with the feeling of clothing is an example of hypersensitivity. 

Hypersensitivity is the opposite of hyposensitivity.  Hyper means over, above normal or high. 

People who are hypersensitive experience sensory overload.  Therefore, a child with hypersensitivity will feel things from one or more sense too much and avoid them.  The opposite, a child with hyposensitivity will not feel things from one or more sense enough and seek them out. 

You might also hear or see the terms sensory avoider (a child who avoids sensory experiences) and sensory seeker (a child who seeks out or craves sensory experiences).   These, in excess, are symptoms of sensory impairment, sensory disorder, or sensory processing disorder.

Help for Hypersensitivity

Some children and adults with hypersensitivity as part of their sensory disorder have difficulty going out to places that are noisy, busy or bright. Grocery stores, restaurants, movie theatres, arenas, museums can cause sensory overload. 

To help parents and those with hypersensitivity, we have developed a free sensory friendly finder where you can search for events and places that are sensory-friendly, often with less noise, less busyness and less bright light.  Use our sensory-friendly to locate sensory friendly events, places and services in  your city, as well as throughout the United States and Canada. 

You can also contribute! If you’ve found a business, attraction, service or event that is sensory friendly, it only takes a minute or two to add it our our growing database. Sharing your information and experience (you can also write a review) with other sensory-friendly seekers helps our entire community.

What is Sensory Friendly Clothing?

For children with hypersensitivity to touch you may have heard or seen that sensory friendly clothing is recommended. 

Sensory friendly clothing has no seams, no tags and is often very soft.  In fact, you may have purchased regular clothing with either no tags or easily removed tags that don’t leave behind any fabric on the seam when torn off.  These are examples of sensory friendly clothing,

A Sensory Processing Disorder Diagnosis

A sensory child does not mean the child has a sensory disorder. 

Children learn through their senses.  A baby explores and learns from their senses in a different way from a toddler or a school-aged child. 

Just like you, a child when tired, hungry or thirsty is more sensitive. 

Your child might have different sensory preferences than you.  You might like a white noise machine to sleep and your child might need a blackout curtain and silent house to sleep.  Your child might love to hang upside down and go on roller coasters and you might feel a little unsteady climbing a ladder.  We all have different sensory preferences.  Your sensory preferences can change over time too. 

However, if your child’s senses seem to be interrupting your ability to get through the day as a family, at home, their day at daycare or school there is cause for concern.  Especially if your child’s sensory differences are interrupting your child’s ability to learn or play on a regular basis.

If you see your child experiencing these challenges you may want to consider testing for sensory disorder.

Key Questions to Ask if You Think Your Child Has a Sensory Disorder

The most important thing when wondering if a sensory disorder is the problem and you should see someone about it is to ask yourself this question:

Is this a regular and repeated sensory problem that is preventing my child from learning and playing?

It is OK that your baby does not like loud noises and is afraid of them.

It is OK if your young child covers their ears when they hear a siren.

However, if your child refuses to go to the playground today because a vehicle with a siren went by when they were playing there yesterday, then that is a sensory problem.

Other questions you can ask if you’re wondering if a sensory disorder is the problem:

Did the sensory problem happen just once?

Does this sensory problem only happen when my child is tired?

That is less likely to be a sensory disorder.

Alternatively, does this sensory issue happen all the time?

Is this sensory sensitivity happening more and more?

That is more likely to be a sensory disorder.

When you suspect a sensory disorder, talk to your pediatric occupational therapist, psychologist, family doctor or pediatrician.  Occupational therapists have the expertise to assess for sensory processing disorder symptoms and provide that information to your child’s psychologist, family doctor or pediatrician who can make a formal diagnosis. Be aware that some doctors do not recognize sensory disorder as a diagnosis.  If you are worried about sensory disorder and your child, it is important to have an open, honest discussion with your doctor and other professionals on your child’s health care team.  It is important to understand and to be understood when talking about sensory disorders.

Four people to talk to when you are worried about sensory disorder and your child:

  1. Occupational therapist
  2. Pediatrician
  3. Family Doctor
  4. Psychologist

Let’s Talk About Sensory Processing Disorder vs. Autism

You might be wondering if sensory processing disorder is autism. 

Sensory disorder and autism are different disorders but sometimes, they are linked.  Sensory disorder is not autism.  They are not the same disorder. 

Nevertheless, people with autism often have sensory issues, and that can make it confusing.  Sometimes, especially for autism, we use different words; we call things sensory sensitivities, sensory issues, sensory difficulties, sensory challenges or sensory overload.  Moreover, we use them inter-changeably.  So, is sensory sensitivity a sign of autism? Yes, hypersensitivity (or over-responsiveness) and hyposensitivity (or under-responsiveness) are used to diagnose autism.  However, it is important to know that sensory disorder alone is not an indication of autism.  Therefore, a child with autism might have a sensory disorder as part of their diagnosis, but not every child who has autism has a sensory disorder.  Likewise, a child with sensory disorder alone does not have autism.  People with autism have symptoms like poor social and emotional skills, difficulties or delays in communication, restricted interests and/or other criteria. Sensory problems can be part of the many difficulties that someone with autism has.  Learn more about sensory autism.

To summarize and help you understand the difference between sensory processing disorder and autism:

    1. Can a child have sensory issues and not be autistic?  
      • Yes. A child can have a sensory disorder and not be autistic.
    2. Can a child have both autism and sensory disorder?
      • Yes. For some children, a sensory disorder is part of their autism.
    3. Can a child have autism and not have sensory issues?  
      • Yes. Some children have autism but do not have sensory issues.
    4. Is sensory disorder and autism the same thing?
      • No. Sensory disorder, also called sensory processing disorder, and autism are not the same thing.
    5. Does sensory disorder always happen with autism?
      • No. Not every child with autism has a sensory disorder or sensory processing disorder.
    6. Is sensory disorder just a form of autism?  
      • No. Sensory disorder or sensory processing disorder is different from autism.
    7. Is autism a type of sensory disorder?
      • No. Autism is not a type of sensory disorder.

What are the Types of Sensory Processing Disorders

There are three broad categories to classify sensory disorder:

  1. Sensory Modulation Disorder
  2. Sensory-Motor Disorder
  3. Sensory Discrimination Disorder

Sometimes people ask, what are the patterns of sensory processing disorders?

Three main patterns of sensory processing problems are often used:

  1. Hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness),
  2. Hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness, sensory overload),
  3. Sensory seeking (craving).

Using just those three patterns oversimplifys things. 

It is important to know that sensory disorder is not easily classified into just these three patterns. These patterns are often used as they are more easily understood than the other types of sensory disorders. 

All of the different sensory disorders can be very confusing. Your senses are complex.  Occupational therapists study for many years to understand the senses, the sensory systems and sensory processing disorder. 

To review the types of sensory processing disorder, we use these three categories:

1. Sensory Modulation

Sensory modulation means how we organize sensory information.  Three common patterns of sensory disorder are hyposensitive, hypersensitive and sensory seeking.  They all fall under this sub-type.

2. Sensory-Motor

There are more than just three patterns of sensory disorder.  There are also sensory disorders in movement, or sensory-motor disorders.  A sensory-motor disorder means difficulties in posture and movement.  Sometimes words like dyspraxia or development coordination disorder are also used to describe those sensory-motor or movement disorders.  Posture means how you sit, stand or move against gravity.  A sensory-motor disorder means difficulties in movement or moving.  Your child might appear clumsy or have difficulty with coordination if they have a sensory-motor disorder.

3. Sensory Discrimination

Some sensory disorders are under a sub-type called sensory discrimination.  Sensory discrimination means telling the difference between variations in a single sense.  So for example, some children with sensory disorder have difficulty hearing the difference between the words bat and cat when they do not have hearing loss.  Their brains simply cannot distinguish between the two words. That is an indication of a type of auditory sensory discrimination disorder.  With sensory discrimination disorder there can be difficulty in perception in each of the senses.  It is helpful to know that wearing glasses or a hearing aid or using a wheelchair are not signs of a sensory disorder.

Can a Child Outgrow Sensory Processing Disorder?

This is one of the most common questions asked about sensory processing disorder.  The short answer is, no.  A child cannot outgrow sensory processing disorder. 

In fact, if left untreated, it can make life more difficult into the teenage years and on to adulthood.  When sensory disorder is untreated, it can prevent your child from learning and developing important life skills.  On the other hand, it is important to recognize that a child’s sensory-motor development changes from infancy through childhood, changes in normal sensory-motor development does not indicate a sensory disorder.  Sensory processing is different for a baby, toddler, preschooler, school-aged child and teen.  Sensory issues in children are not always easy to figure out. 

If you are wondering about sensory disorder and your child (of any age), at the very least, see an occupational therapist and talk to your doctor.  Remember that a sensory disorder affects everyday life and makes play and learning difficult for children so it is important to identify.

What About Sensory Processing Disorder in Adults?

While sensory disorders are more often associated with children, adults have sensory disorders too.  Most often, sensory disorder symptoms have existed since childhood.  Sometimes a sensory disorder is better managed in adulthood because adults have more choice and control over their daily life and thus can choose to live their life in a way that avoids some of the challenges brought on by sensory processing disorder.  Nevertheless, adults can seek treatment for sensory disorder.

How do I Help a Child or Adult With Sensory Processing Disorder?

A common treatment for sensory disorder is occupational therapy.  An occupational therapist will fully assess your child and then develop a treatment plan for your child.  It is important for the occupational therapist to figure out what sub-type(s) of sensory disorder are present.  Many occupational therapists use a special treatment called sensory integration to help a child or adult with sensory disorder.  Sensory integration involves both sensory and motor (movement) activities, designed by the occupational therapist so that through repetition and practice over time the brain’s ability to receive, understand and respond information from the senses is more organized.

6 Helpful Tips When Sensory Disorder is a Problem

Talk to your doctor. Get a diagnosis so you know for sure you are dealing with sensory disorder.

See an occupational therapist. Occupational therapy can help children and adults with sensory disorders with both individual and group treatment.

Read, watch and learn all that you can about the senses and sensory processing. Sensory disorders are complex.

Understand your child (or yourself). Be a sensory-detective and figure out what senses and aspects of sensory processing are most difficult for you or your child.

Involve your family, and for your child, daycare, pre-school or school. Sensory processing disorder is usually a problem everywhere you or your child spends the day.

Avoid sensory overload and resulting meltdowns for children. There can be many triggers in daily life that make dealing with a sensory disorder more difficult. Use our sensory friendly finder to locate events, places and services in your area. 

Living a sensory-friendly life will make things easier and more enjoyable.