What is sensory processing disorder?

Children in playground
Many children have difficulty experiencing the world as a result of sensory issues. We take a look at this often misunderstood disorder and explain what parents need to know.
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All children are capable of being rather awkward at times, but some may seem more difficult than others. They might complain about their clothes being uncomfortable, pick fussily at their food, freak out about loud noises: all things that may gain them a reputation for being a ‘challenging child'.

But while there’s no doubt that all children test the boundaries at times, a number of children have a diagnosable condition called sensory processing disorder (SPD), which affects the way they experience the world. A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology suggests that one in nine children has a sensory condition that makes it hard for them to cope with school life.

What is sensory processing disorder?

‘Sensory processing disorder is a condition where children’s senses work differently, so they experience the world very differently from other children,’ explains Carol Povey, director of the Centre for Autism at the National Autistic Society.

In SPD, the brain struggles to process and act upon information received through the senses. It can affect some or all of the senses, and children may experience oversensitivity or undersensitivity: for instance, some are terrified by loud noises, while others appear not to even notice them.

Common symptoms of SPD include:

  • Reacting with fright or aggression to bright lights or loud noises, like an ambulance siren
  • Complaining that clothing is uncomfortable or too tight; disliking labels, buttons and tags
  • Being easily distracted by background noise
  • Avoiding physical contact even with family members
  • Having a very limited diet, with a particular aversion to wet or ‘slimy’ food
  • Being clumsy and knocking into people; seeming to have little spatial awareness of where their body is
  • Craving intense movement like going high on the swings or being twirled around by a parent
  • Using too much pressure when writing, tearing the paper or damaging pen nibs
  • Being excessively fidgety; wriggling and swinging on their chair
  • A high tolerance for pain
  • A tendency to melt down or run away if they’re under- or overstimulated.

Children with SPD are often mistakenly labelled clumsy, careless, immature, fussy and disruptive.

SPD seems to be equally common in boys and girls. It’s also closely linked with autism – although not all children on the autism spectrum have SPD, and not all children with SPD are on the autism spectrum – and since last year, has been part of the official diagnostic criteria for autism.

The level of difficulty that SPD causes can change throughout a person’s life. ‘If someone is feeling relaxed and happy and is in an environment where they feel comfortable, they may experience little difficulty,’ explains Carol. ‘But if they’re stressed and anxious, their symptoms may flare up.’

How can SPD affect children’s education?

SPD can have a big impact on children’s education. ‘Classrooms are often very stimulating places, with lots of noise and interaction, and bright pictures on the walls,’ Carol says. ‘These features will appeal to most of the children in the class, but for those with SPD, it can be difficult to focus.’

Noise levels can be hard for children with SPD, too. ‘Most children can filter out background noise and pay attention to the teacher talking, but this can be impossible for children with SPD,’ Carol says. Equally, children who are oversensitive to noise may melt down if the volume gets too high.

Children who need extra physical stimulation can find it hard to sit still. They may fidget constantly, rock on their chair, zip and unzip their pencil case and twirl or chew their pencil.

Playtimes are often difficult. Some children with SPD need lots of intense physical contact, and may inadvertently become too rough during playground games, and hurt other children. Others shy away from noise and physical contact and find playtimes overwhelming. 

Even simple things like eating a school dinner, where they may have sensory issues with certain foods, or wearing a uniform with ‘scratchy’ or ‘uncomfortable’ seams can cause issues.

How is SPD diagnosed and treated?

If you suspect your child has SPD, ask your GP for a referral to a specialist. This will usually be an occupational therapist (OT): a therapist who works with people whose condition prevents them getting on with normal life. ‘An OT will work with your child on their specific difficulty, usually with a combination of physical exercises that help the connections in the brain,’ Carol explains. ‘With the right therapy, sensory processing disorders can really improve.’

What can schools do to help with SPD?

Alongside OT, there are many things schools can do to make school life easier for children with SPD. ‘Because SPD is very individual, it’s important that parents talk to teachers about what works for their child,’ Carol says. ‘It may be that the teacher uses the child’s name often in class to draw their attention back to what’s being said. They may need some time-out in a quiet space if the classroom is feeling overwhelming, or to eat their lunch in a classroom rather than a busy dining hall.’

Other strategies to help children manage their SPD include:

  • Making sure their chair is the right size, so they can sit with their feet flat on the floor and their elbows on the table top
  • Letting them use an inflated or rotating cushion on their chair to provide the sensory input they need
  • Letting them use a fidget toy or a chewy toy in class; this can focus their attention, rather than distracting them
  • Seating the child close to the teacher so they can provide one-to-one support when needed
  • Making sure they’re not sitting near a source of distraction, such as a flickering light or a dripping tap
  • Letting them avoid activities that they find particularly challenging, like assemblies or competitive sports
  • Giving them sensory breaks, for example where they can bounce on a mini trampoline or run a lap of the playground to fulfil their need for physical sensory input
  • Having a designated space – ideally quiet, with low level lighting and no stimulating wall displays – where they can retreat if they feel overwhelmed
  • Letting them line up first or last so they’re not jostled by other children
  • Allowing them to wear ear defenders during noisy activities.

Above all, remember that your child’s needs will be unique to them; not all of these interventions will help every child, and some may need others that are not on the list, but that you have found successful at home.

‘SPD is a very individual condition, but with supportive teaching and specialist help, most will learn to manage a lot of their sensory difficulties,’ adds Carol. ‘With support, their problems can be minimised and they’re able to survive in the world we live in.’