Pediatric Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

The compassionate teams at Children's Health℠ use evidence-based care to diagnose and treat sensory processing disorder (SPD).

We know that each child with SPD has different strengths and weaknesses; that’s why we provide a personalized treatment plan based on their specific needs. We will work with you and your child to support their development, improve their behavior and help their growing brains make sense of the world around them.

What is Pediatric Sensory Processing Disorder?

Pediatric Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) makes it hard for children to process the information they receive through their senses. While your child's brain looks typical in images, SPD disrupts how information flows through their brain. This can disrupt your child’s daily life. For instance, they may feel that clothes are too scratchy so getting dressed is difficult or they may find that light is too bright, so it’s hard to concentrate at school. They might also find that food tastes too intense.

What are the different types of Pediatric Sensory Processing Disorder?

There are three types of SPD that may affect the way your child responds to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures and movements.

Sensory modulation disorder

Children with sensory modulation disorder may react too strongly to information from their senses or may not react strongly enough. For example, they might find typical lighting too bright or not notice a strong burning smell. They also might not feel pain the same way other children do.

Sensory-based motor disorder

Children with sensory-based motor disorders have trouble with balance and coordination. These disorders happen when the brain has trouble processing where they are in their environment, sensations on their feet or other issues.

Sensory discrimination disorder

Children with sensory discrimination disorder have trouble telling one sight or sound from another. For instance, they may not be able to tell the difference between different faces or voices. They also may not hear the differences between an “a” or an “e” sound or may not be able to feel the difference between a nickel and a quarter.

What are the signs and symptoms of Pediatric Sensory Processing Disorder?

Each type of SPD can cause changes in how your child behaves and develops.

Children with sensory modulation disorder who overreact to their senses might have symptoms like:

  • Disliking new tastes or smells
  • Refusing to eat certain foods or textures
  • Feeling stressed by crowded environments
  • Disliking bright lights or sunlight
  • Disliking being touched by others

Children with sensory modulation disorder who underreact to their senses might have symptoms like:

  • Not noticing a mess on their face or hands
  • Being unable to sit still without moving
  • Repeatedly moving their head back and forth
  • Enjoying looking at moving objects
  • Enjoying the taste of non-food items
  • Not responding to loud noises or sounds
  • Constantly humming or singing to themselves

Children with sensory-based motor disorder are often clumsy or have trouble completing tasks like feeding themselves or getting dressed.

Children with sensory discrimination disorder may not be able to:

  • Tell if food is hot or cold
  • Figure out who is speaking
  • Recognize even strong smells like when something is burning
  • Identify shapes, colors, letters or numbers
  • Follow verbal directions

How is Pediatric Sensory Processing Disorder diagnosed?

When your child goes to well-child visits, their doctor will ask questions that might reveal some of the symptoms of SPD. If they are concerned your child might have SPD, they will refer you to an occupational therapist (OT) - a therapist who specializes in helping children complete activities they need to do each day, like getting dressed, bathing, eating or playing.

At Children’s Health, our occupational therapists use evidence-based screening tests to identify SPD. They will do a physical exam to check your child’s strength and muscle tone to make sure there are no physical issues that could be causing symptoms. They will also give you a questionnaire to fill out about your child’s behavior that can help them make an accurate diagnosis.

What causes Pediatric Sensory Processing Disorder?

Doctors don’t currently know the exact cause of SPD. It might be inherited, caused by birth complications or it might be related to a child’s environment. For one of these reasons, their brain may be wired a little differently.

How is Pediatric Sensory Processing Disorder treated?

First, your child’s occupational therapist will use tests to determine how much input your child gets from each of their senses. They’ll use this information to identify your child’s strengths and weaknesses and create a personalized treatment plan.

We understand that every child with SPD is different, so we use different techniques to improve how well their brain processes information from their senses. Our compassionate therapists are careful to never overload your child. They take gradual steps to slowly help your child experience the world. Most of their therapy sessions will focus on sensory experiences that help their brain build new connections.

Our therapists also help improve you and your child’s life at home. They can help you understand what activities calm your child and what activities are too much for them. They might recommend changes to your child’s environment, like lowering the lights during dinner, so your child isn’t overwhelmed by brightness and can focus on food’s taste and texture. These subtle changes to your child’s routine and environment can improve their behavior and development.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do I need expensive special equipment to help my child?

    No. Our occupational therapists will help you figure out inexpensive ways to create the right environment for your child.

  • How long will my child need therapy?

    Any amount of therapy can help your child improve. However, it is impossible to predict how long each child will need to stay in therapy to meet their goals. Some children may need therapy for just six months while others will keep seeing a therapist for years.