Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that affects how the brain processes sensory information. Therapies involving sensory integration and sensory-based activities can help children develop appropriate responses to sensations.

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SPD can affect one or more senses. The senses include:

  • sight
  • taste
  • touch
  • smell
  • hearing
  • proprioception (body movement)
  • vestibular sense (body awareness)

A person with SPD may react to too much or too little stimulation.

A child may be so sensitive to certain sensory inputs that even a small amount may be too much for them.

Some people are under-responsive to sensory input and do not notice or register certain types of sensory information. These individuals often actively seek extra sensory inputs, sometimes by self-harming.

Therapy can help children with SPD cope with the disorder and respond more appropriately to certain sensations.

Therapists evaluate and design a treatment plan that best meets the child’s needs.

Typically, occupational therapists (OTs) evaluate a child for and treat SPD. However, children with SPD may also benefit from working with a physical therapist (PT) or speech-language pathologist (SLP).

The primary goal of SPD treatment is to foster appropriate responses to sensory information in active, fun, and meaningful ways and improve the child’s ability to participate and function in daily activities.

Various approaches and strategies can help children cope with the disorder. The interventions will depend on the type of SPD the child has.

Sensory integration refers to the process of receiving sensory information, processing it, and responding to it. Sensory integration therapy (SIT) is based on the principle that integrating the senses is essential to a person’s basic functions.

Problems with integrating different sensations can lead to issues with learning, emotional regulation, and development.

Only specialized OTs, PTs, or SLPs can perform SIT, which involves using play to improve sensory processing.

Therapists may use equipment such as swings, trampolines, and brushes during this type of therapy. Activities provide tactile, proprioceptive, and other inputs, which help organize the senses and promote regulation.

The idea is that these therapeutic experiences can help adjust a child’s perception and sensory processing.

Benefits and risks

SIT is an evidence-based practice for children with autism. A 2020 review states that some SIT interventions may result in short-term improvements in sensory integration and autism symptom severity, allowing children to better interact with and adapt to their environment.

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may also undergo SIT, as parents of children with this condition tend to prefer this therapy to traditional ADHD treatment. However, children with ADHD who undergo SIT have a 3.5-fold greater risk of developing psychiatric disorders.

Sensory-based intervention (SBI) involves activities, techniques, and equipment that help improve the skills and behaviors of children with sensory processing challenges, particularly those who self-harm.

SBI empowers children to substitute the sensory input they get from self-injuring behaviors with sensory coping strategies.

This type of therapy may involve:

  • massage
  • brushes
  • weighted blankets
  • mats

Benefits and risks

A 2022 review on the effects of SIT and related SBIs on children with cerebral palsy found some evidence of the treatment’s usefulness on motor development and sensory processing disorders.

Another 2015 review found that while moderate evidence supports the use of SIT, SBI had mixed results.

However, another review found that there is not enough evidence to support the use of SBIs on children with disabilities, as many of the studies on this intervention do not have clear outcomes, have a weak experiment design, or are at a high risk of bias.

The Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-Based (DIR)/Floortime model provides therapists with a framework for engaging children whose sensory processing difficulties make it hard to relate with others.

Therapists and a child’s parents or guardians sit on the floor and play with the child. This encourages and supports the child to problem-solve with objects such as blocks.

Benefits and risks

Some evidence suggests that DIR/Floortime effectively treats children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

A small 2021 study involving 15 children with ASD found that DIR/Floortime helped improve social engagement during play.

According to a 2020 study, parents who are married, have a lower income, have a higher knowledge of the DIR/Floortime model, and used the model for more than 1 hour per day were more likely to engage with the child and receive better outcomes.

However, this means that people who do not have the time to engage with their children may not see as many benefits.

Hippotherapy is a form of OT, PT, and SLP that uses horseback riding and the characteristic gait of horses to provide motor and sensory input.

It may help improve sensory modulation, which allows for the filtering out of irrelevant stimuli.

Benefits and risks

A 2021 pilot study found that eight sessions of hippotherapy improved the adaptive responses of children with ASD in outside therapy.

Potential risks include injuries, such as falls. A 2017 pilot study found that other perceived risks include horse bites and kicks if children are not cautious enough.

Vision therapy or binocular therapy addresses visual integration, a skill often impaired in people with ASD.

It targets the following developmental abilities in children with SPD:

  • visual skills
  • visual processing skills
  • visual-motor skills
  • hand-eye coordination


An old 2006 case study showed that vision therapy improved visual and motor perception.

The exercises also helped with the child’s dyspraxia, sports performance, and learning difficulties.

However, this single case study does not represent the effectiveness of the therapy in a larger population.

Therapeutic listening is a specialized treatment approach. It involves having a child listen to a series of sound patterns through specially designed headphones for 30 minutes twice a day.

Experts believe that exposing the nervous system to a range of sounds may improve issues commonly seen in children with SPD. These issues may affect:

  • attention
  • engagement
  • coordination and balance
  • ability to follow instructions
  • social participation and communication

Benefits and risks

A 2020 study found that therapeutic listening for preterm children with sensory dysregulation, attention, and cognitive problems improved their attention and sensory processing skills.

The treatment also improved the sensorimotor skills and social interaction of children with sensory processing difficulties.

Another 2020 Korean study showed that therapeutic listening reduced problem behaviors and improved occupational performance and sensory processing abilities in children with sensory modulation disorder.

A 2019 review found no adverse effects of therapeutic listening for children and adolescents. However, the authors note that it is important for a therapist to choose sounds and techniques that fit the individual for the best results.

Sensory processing disorder affects a child’s ability to process and integrate sensory information.

This can lead to difficulties in functioning and participating in everyday activities. Finding ways to address the sensory processing needs of children with SPD is essential.

OTs typically treat children with SPD. They may use various forms of therapy, such as sensory integration, DIR/Floortime, hippotherapy, and therapeutic listening, to help children cope with their condition.

While there is some evidence to support these therapies, further research is needed to determine how effective they are in treating the sensory processing difficulties of children.