What is Sensory Disorder?

Have you been told your child has a sensory disorder? Maybe a teacher, occupational therapist, psychologist or doctor mentioned it? 

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.  

Some sensory words

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. On the other hand, 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.  There is no agreement on how many senses humans 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, 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 respond 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) for our body to respond to it. 

Your sense of balance and head movement is called your vestibular sense.  Also, your sense of your body movement is also called proprioception. Your brain is complex. Your senses are complex.  You have many senses.  Not just five senses, but at least eight.  So a sensory problem can affect any of the senses. 

Sensory Sensitivity Explained

It is important to know that you as a human are a sensory being.  You have normal 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 daily.  That does not make you or your child have some sort of sensory impairment.

But some people have sensory sensitivity that does impede their daily life.  It causes sensory overload.

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


The Difference Between Hyposensitivity and Hypersensitivity


However, 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 hyposensitivity might show signs like constantly touching things.  Hyposensitivity in this example means touching things that are quite excessive and gets in the way of other learning and play. 

For instance, it is OK that your child likes to cuddle with a blanket and rub a soft toy.  It helps them go to sleep or comfort themselves.  Importantly, this is not a sign of sensory impairment.  However, it is not OK that your child cannot stop going around the room and touching everything in it.  Furthermore, not being able to stop.  That is one sign of hyposensitivity manifested as excessive touching.  Moreover, sometimes hyposensitivity is dangerous.  That is because 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 processing disorder.

Help for Hypersensitivity

Some children and adults with hypersensitivity have difficulty going out to places that are noisy, busy or bright. Grocery stores, restaurants, movie theatres, arenas, museums can cause sensory overload.   Sensory-friendly living helps.

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 when you travel.

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 to our growing database. Sharing your information and experience (you can also write a review) with other sensory-friendly seekers helps our entire community.

A Sensory Processing Disorder Diagnosis

A sensory child does not mean the child has a disorder. For example, children learn through their senses. Moreover, a baby explores and learns from their senses differently from a toddler or a school-aged child. 

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

Your child likely has different sensory preferences than you.  For example, you might like a white noise machine to sleep.  On the other hand, your child might need a blackout curtain and a silent house to sleep.  Likewise, your child might love to hang upside down and go on roller coasters.  In contrast, you might feel a little unsteady climbing a ladder.  We all have different sensory preferences.  Furthermore, 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.  For instance, this can be at home, daycare or school.  There is a cause for concern.  Especially if your child’s sensory differences are interrupting your child’s ability to learn or play regularly.

Therefore, if you see your child experiencing these challenges you may want to consider testing for a sensory processing disorder.

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

The most important thing when wondering if something is a big 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.

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 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 processing disorder, talk to your pediatric occupational therapist, psychologist, family doctor or pediatrician.  Occupational therapists have the expertise to assess sensory symptoms and provide that information to your child’s psychologist, family doctor or pediatrician who can make a diagnosis. If you are worried about your child, it is important to have an open, honest discussion with your doctor and other professionals on your child’s health care team.  

Four people to talk to when you are worried about 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 the same as autism. 

Sensory disorder and autism are different disorders are they are linked.  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 interchangeably.  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 a 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 and 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 sensory issues 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. Are sensory processing disorders and autism the same thing?
      • No. Sensory processing disorder and autism is not the same thing.
    5. Does sensory disorder always happen with autism?
      • No. Not every child with autism has a sensory disorder.
    6. Is sensory disorder just a form of autism?  
      • No. Sensory processing disorder is different from autism.
    7. Is autism a type of sensory disorder?
      • No. Autism is not a type of sensory processing disorder.

What are the Types of Sensory Processing Disorders?

There are three broad categories:

  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:

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

Using just those three patterns oversimplifies things. 

It is important to know that sensory disorder is not easily classified into just these three patterns. 

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 related disorders.

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 are hyposensitive, hypersensitive and sensory seeking.  They all fall under this sub-type.

2. Sensory-Motor

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

There is another sub-type called sensory discrimination.  Sensory discrimination means telling the difference between variations in a single sense.  So for example, some children 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.  The short answer is, no.  

If left untreated, it can make life more difficult into the teenage years and on to adulthood.  When a sensory processing 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 a sensory disorder and your child (of any age), at the very least, see an occupational therapist and talk to your doctor.  Remember that a disorder affects everyday life and makes the play and learning difficult for children so it is important to identify.

What About Sensory Processing Disorder in Adults?

Adults have sensory processing disorders too.  Most often, sensory 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 sensory challenges. Nevertheless, adults can seek treatment too.

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

A common treatment for a sensory processing disorder is occupational therapy.  An occupational therapist will fully assess your or your child and then develop a treatment plan for your child.  The occupational therapist needs to figure out what sub-type(s) of a sensory disorder is present.  Many occupational therapists use a special treatment called sensory integration to help a child or adult.  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.

7 Helpful Tips When Sensory Disorder is a Problem:

  1. Talk to your doctor. Get a diagnosis so you know for sure what you are dealing with.
  2. See an occupational therapist. Occupational therapy can help children and adults with sensory disorders with both individual and group treatment.
  3. Read, watch and learn all that you can about the senses and sensory processing. The sensory system is complex.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Avoid sensory overload and resulting meltdowns for children. There can be many triggers in daily life that make dealing with sensory problems more difficult. Use our sensory-friendly finder to locate events, places, and services in your area. 
  7. Living a sensory-friendly life will make things easier and more enjoyable.