Sensory processing disorders are conditions that affect how the brain processes sensory information.

They can cause over or undersensitivity to sensory information, including sight, sound, and touch.

Although sensory processing disorders are not a formal diagnosis, they can be disruptive and uncomfortable. The disorders usually start at a young age and can cause challenging behavior.

This article will explain what sensory processing disorders are, the possible symptoms, and the treatment options.

a girl struggling to concentrate in a classroom as she has Sensory processing disorderShare on Pinterest
The symptoms of sensory processing disorders may start at a young age.

Sensory processing disorders disrupt how the nervous system processes sensory information.

The nervous system is a complex system of nerve cells that send signals around the body. It receives information about the outside world through sensory inputs.

For example, the ears receive sensory information in the form of sound waves. The brain then processes these sound waves, turning them into something meaningful.

There are eight senses:

  • sight
  • sound
  • touch
  • taste
  • smell
  • body movement
  • body awareness
  • interoception, which refers to needing the toilet or feeling hungry

When a person has a sensory processing disorder, their brain cannot effectively process certain sensory information. People usually have no difficulties receiving the information itself.

The disorders cause inappropriate responses, reactions, or both to sensory information. Some people become oversensitive to sensory input. Others may become undersensitive to sensory input.

For example, children with a sensory processing disorder may find certain places or people overwhelming. Others may lack sensations, causing them to play roughly and constantly touch objects.

The disorders typically start when a person is a toddler.

The main symptom of a sensory processing disorder in children and adults is the inappropriate processing of sensory information. This typically results in over or undersensitivity to sensations.

For example, some will experience fewer sensations than normal, while others will become easily overwhelmed.

Children who find sensory input overwhelming may show signs that include:

  • being overwhelmed by people or places
  • startling easily
  • difficulty with bright lights
  • avoiding contact with others
  • reacting strongly to smells, sounds, or textures

Those who are undersensitive to sensory input may:

  • frequently touch objects and play roughly
  • have a high pain tolerance
  • fidget or move regularly
  • be clumsy and uncoordinated

Many other symptoms can also occur, depending on which senses the disorders affect. For example, some symptoms affect movement and balance.

In some cases, the symptoms are more subtle. For example, some people may experience difficulties telling the difference between textures.

It is unclear what causes sensory processing disorders.

They tend to run in families, so a genetic issue may be a contributing factor.

Congenital abnormalities are another possible cause of sensory processing disorders. Sometimes, the disorders occur with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Sensory processing disorders can differ depending on which senses they affect. The severity of the disorder also affects its symptoms.

There are eight senses, and the disorders can affect any of them. According to the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder, there are up to 260,000 different patterns of symptoms that might occur.

It is possible to group these patterns into three main subtypes:

  • Sensory modulating disorder: This type usually involves over or undersensitivity to sensory information.
  • Sensory-based motor disorder: This type affects balance, movement, and coordination.
  • Sensory discrimination disorders: These affect how the brain interprets subtle differences in sensory inputs, such as different textures.

These subtypes can cause broadly different symptoms.

There are no formal criteria for assessing sensory processing disorders, and a doctor will make a diagnosis based on the person’s medical history, symptoms, and physical examination.

In children, doctors will focus on behavior and how they interact with other children or objects.

They may also use tests of sensory processing to detect problems. For example, sensory integration and praxis tests (SIPTs) can detect some sensory problems in children.

SIPTs will show the doctor how a child plays with toys, how they hold certain objects (such as a fork or a pencil), how they build structures, and more.

There is no medication or cure for sensory processing disorders. However, doctors can help a person manage the symptoms through therapy.

For example, they may suggest sensory integration therapy, which usually involves a broad range of physical activities to regulate a person’s responses to sensory information.

The therapy aims to balance sensory inputs and improve a person’s spatial awareness. A person may do a mixture of activities at home or in specially designed environments.

The treatment may also involve cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help a person deal with the emotional aspects of their condition. Physical therapy is another option.

Sensory processing disorders are a group of conditions that affect how the brain processes sensory information. The symptoms vary in severity and depend on which senses the disorders affect.

Although sensory processing disorders usually start in toddlers, they may occur in adults, too. They could be an underlying cause of disruptive behavior in young people.

The disorders may be difficult to diagnose, as there are no formal criteria. However, there are treatment options to manage the symptoms, such as sensory integration therapy.

Research is ongoing to understand the causes of sensory processing disorders. Genetics and birth abnormalities are some possible causes.