What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

A tunnel of lights moving past the camera

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition where the brain has trouble processing sensory input. Neurodivergent individuals often have SPD alongside another neurodiverse conditions.

Most autistic individuals, and those with ADHD or dyspraxia, experience sensory processing challenges to some degree. Although it is also possible to have sensory processing disorder as a stand-alone condition.

We will explore how SPD affects people’s lives and what steps they can take to overcome it as well as the support that can be put into place to reduce the stress of sensory processing disorder on an individual.

Thousands of children face the daily challenges of a sensory processing disorder, often without knowing they have it. A study published in the Journal of Occupational Therapy and Occupational Education found that a person with a sensory processing disorder might also experience difficulties with speech, motor skills, behavior, or social interaction.

Some children experience milder symptoms as they grow up. This can be for a number of reasons, such as developed connections within the brain, learned coping strategies, and choosing to self advocate to avoid stressful situations. However this also means that there are many adults who experience sensory processing challenges.

There are many symptoms of SPD, which include:

  • hypersensitivity to tactile stimulation
  • aversion to certain tastes and or textures
  • hypersensitive hearing
  • experiencing emotional distress or difficulty in social interactions as a result of sensory processing issues.

Treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder is often conducted through individual and group therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one approach to treatment for SPD.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aims to help the patient learn skills that can be used to help the person cope with problems that may arise. Occupational therapy is also used to support individuals to be able to desensitise themselves to some sensory stimulus.

Most individuals receive no support or treatment when it comes to managing SPD. Their symptoms are managed in a trial-and-error way by the person advocating for what works best for them.

Signs and symptoms of sensory processing disorder

  • Over-sensitivity to touch, sound, and sight
  • Sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises
  • Intense need for physical contact
  • High avoidance of physical contact
  • Difficulty sitting still
  • High anxiety around environmental change
  • Challenges socialising in a crowded or sensory-stimulating environment

Consequences of poor sensory management

Sensory overload happens when there are mixed messages around the sensory system and the senses are not able to be correctly processed and sorted by the brain in an efficient way. This can lead an individual to go into a high state of panic, anxiety or to experience a meltdown or shutdown.

Meltdowns are an emotional response to an overload of sensory information. Meltdowns are often sudden and difficult to predict. They are associated with a state of extreme anxiety and loss of cognitive processing. They are usually triggered by a sense of overwhelming sensory overload.

A meltdown is often a loud response that results in an individual crying or shouting. It’s an emotional response that needs to be able to run its course. An individual experiencing a meltdown is unable to control the response and will not be able to stop the process once it has started.

Many individuals experience a deep sense of shame after a meltdown. Meltdowns are also physical exhausting meaning that an individual will need time to recover afterwards.

Not everyone with sensory processing disorder experiences meltdowns – some people can experience what is known as a shutdown. A shutdown is an emotional response that is associated with an overload of sensory information it can be triggered by the same things that can cause a meltdown.

Instead of a loud outburst of emotional energy the individual will shut down. Often unable to hear, speak or move at any speed, again this response can’t be prevented by the individual once they have gone into shutdown. They simply have to wait for their body to recover.

Some ways individuals can manage sensory overload

  • Wearing sensory safe clothing
  • Removing clothing tags
  • Wearing earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones
  • Wearing self-regulating clothing like weighted caps
  • Avoiding crowded and loud spaces
  • Wearing sunglasses
  • Self-regulating with fiddle or chew items

Managing the sensory environment should be something that is done as a matter of duty, not only to be compliant with the Equality Act but because it’s the right thing to do. We need to be striving for a culture where the goal is to bring out the best in everyone and create a space where everyone feels safe and valued.