What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Hartley Steiner


Recently I have seen a rise in the number of articles, Facebook posts, and even tweets claiming to define Sensory Processing Disorder. This should be good news, and it is — mostly. But, some of it is misinformation.

Although I am thankful anyone wants to help spread awareness, it frustrates me personally that these people could very well be doing more harm than good. I have dedicated a large portion of my life to spreading awareness that will hopefully benefit kids like mine — all over our country and arguably the world. I would really like to see good, solid, accurate information. Wouldn’t you?

It is with that goal in mind — to educate and help — I am taking a stab at answering the increasingly popular question, “What is Sensory Processing Disorder?” My answer, and this article, is specifically geared towards helping parents with SPD kids have a response for the strangers (and even family members) who might stare at or judge us. We are on the front lines, and we have the biggest stake in making sure that the message being sent about Sensory Processing Disorder is complete and accurate.

Now, I’d like to start with a few myth-busting points:

“SPD is on the Autism Spectrum” or “SPD is a mild form of Autism” – FALSE.

Although a significant portion of kids with ASD do have sensory issues (estimates range as high as 85%), the opposite is not true. Many children with SPD do not have ASD.

“They are trying to get SPD added to the Autism Spectrum in the DSM” — FALSE.

The goal of the SPD Foundation and Dr. Lucy Jane Miler is to get SPD recognized as a ‘stand alone disorder’ in the DSM-IV.

“SPD just means that a child doesn’t like loud noises” – FALSE.

SPD is not just a single symptom, nor is it about ‘sensory preferences.’  Children with SPD have sensory differences severe enough to affect their social and academic development.  It is much more complex than ‘not liking loud noises.’  And, although children with SPD can avoid sensory input, they can also seek sensory input.

“SPD is the new ADD” – FALSE.

Our society has become increasingly obsessed by labels. However, like ADD, Sensory Processing Disorder is real. Just ask the thousands of families who read my blog every month — it is a legitimate health issue that needs to be recognized so that these children and families can get the help they need.

“SPD affects all five senses” — INACCURATE.

This is probably my biggest pet peeve. We have seven senses! Touch, Taste, Smell, Hearing, Sight, Vestibular, and Proprioception. If you are reading anything (blog, tweet, Facebook, article, newspaper, etc) that claims SPD affects 5 senses, stop reading. If they do not know at a minimum that there are seven senses, this person is not an expert.

Now, let’s get to a real and workable definition.

The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation’s website says:

“Sensory processing (sometimes called “sensory integration” or SI) is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.”

Let’s break that down to a simple, easy to remember and crazy-easy to understand definition.

…the way the nervous system receives messages…

This refers to the messages received from all seven senses and how they are conveyed to the brain through the nervous system. The brain is the central processing unit of the nervous system, as that is where the ‘processing’ occurs. By ‘processing’, we are in very basic terms referring to whether or not the brain ‘understands’ (“registers and integrates”) those signals. When the brain misinterprets the signal, and can’t process it appropriately, the result is an inability to generate typical motor and behavior responses.

…appropriate motor and behavior responses…

“Appropriate” here refers to the assumed way a child should respond — if something is too loud, they should cover their ears; if something is quiet, they shouldn’t complain that it is too loud. The word ‘motor’ refers to a muscle-based response — how your body moves as a result of the information from the brain. ‘Behavior’ is how the child continues to respond (over- or under-reactions).

I want to pause here to be sure everyone understands there are three types of Sensory Processing Difficulties: Type I; Sensory Modulation Disorder, Type II; Sensory Based Motor Disorder and Type III; Sensory Discrimination Disorder. For the purpose of this post, which is simple understanding of SPD and communicating what SPD is as a way to spread awareness and understanding for our children, I am not going to go into their definitions.

The analogy I find most helpful when discussing SPD with others is from the SPDF’s website:

“A. Jean Ayres, PhD likened SPD to a neurological ‘traffic jam’ that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.”

Are you familiar with A. Jean Ayres? She is credited as being the pioneer for sensory processing, dating back to the 1960’s. Her work is the foundation for current research and the modern understanding of SPD.

Now, on to how you and I can actually use these definitions for something useful: A 30 second sound bite. This is what I use most often when talking to people with short attention spans, or when I am being interviewed on the radio or television for a two-three minute spot

A “sound bite” definition is also helpful at the grocery store when my son’s need to touch everything in the aisle results in near-disaster or when he insists on swinging from the railings at the checkout counter. Or, at the playground, when he seems to be consumed with pushing down some sweet and small little girl simply because she is too close to him, or even at my home while celebrating some holiday where my son is wound up like a top and crashing into everyone — head first into their behinds — while giggling nonstop.  Like me, I trust you will find many uses for the 30 second sound bite:

“Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological disorder that is like a virtual traffic jam in the brain. The information coming in from all seven senses is misinterpreted which causes my child to often act inappropriately.”

The key points that are important to communicate when talking to someone about SPD are:

  1. SPD is a neurological condition, not a behavior issue
  2. There are seven senses that send information to the brain, the central processing center
  3. The brain misinterprets information coming in via these seven senses so that outgoing messages translate into unexpected/atypical behaviors
  4. These misinterpretations and unusual outgoing messages cause my child to act the way s/he does

I feel when I cover these four areas, I am most likely to accomplish my two main goals when talking to anyone:

  1. Help them understand my child and his behavior
  2. Spread SPD awareness

I hope that you find this information helpful for both your practical understanding of what Sensory Processing Disorder is, and so you can be another person who can help me educate the intensely mis-informed, however well-intentioned, people out there. Our kids need to be understood, and that can’t happen without solid accurate information people can use. Here’s to our SPD kiddos and spreading the word!

For more information on Sensory Processing Disorder I recommend the following books: