Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition where a person (usually a child) has trouble responding to sensory input (sound, vision, touch, taste, smell, and movement) appropriately. Many children with special needs also have SPD.

SPD isn’t recognized by all professionals as its own disorder. It isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which means there’s no formal diagnosis. It’s most often diagnosed as a symptom of other developmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder.

This can make getting a diagnosis, explaining the symptoms, and finding effective treatment methods difficult. Here, we’ll unpack what sensory processing disorder is and what it means for the patient.

Symptoms Of Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder, also called sensory integration dysfunction or sensory modulation disorder, was first described by Dr. A. Jean Ayres in the 1970s. 

SPD makes it harder for patients to react to the environment around them because they experience their senses in the extreme, feeling as if surrounding stimuli are too little or too much.

To cope with the sensory input they receive, people with SPD have behaviors that help them either avoid too much or get more stimulation, depending on the type of SPD. These behaviors often disrupt everyday life, creating difficulties for both children and parents.

People with sensory processing disorder may only experience effects with one sense, like sound alone, or they may be strongly affected by two or more senses. The severity of symptoms varies from person to person as well.

What are some symptoms of sensory processing disorder? Some symptoms of sensory processing disorder include:

  • Extreme emotional reactions to strong stimuli, like loud noises or bright lights
  • Having frequent temper tantrums or meltdowns in overstimulating environments
  • Discomfort from wearing clothing that feels “too itchy” or restrictive
  • Engaging in risky or dangerous behavior
  • Being clumsy or uncoordinated
  • Poor fine motor skills
  • Bumping into stationary objects or being unaware of the position of one’s own body (poor proprioception)
  • Having a strong aversion to certain food textures or tastes
  • Having an unusually high or low pain threshold

What are examples of sensory issues? Examples of sensory issues include having a meltdown because a sound is too loud or light is too bright, or touching objects and seeking additional stimuli in their environment.

Children with SPD display two distinct types of behaviors: sensory-seeking behavior and sensory-avoiding behavior. Some children exhibit both at different times, depending on how overwhelmed they’re feeling.

Sensory Seeking Symptoms

Children under-sensitive to sensory stimuli will often go out of their way to get more sensory input. Experts call these “sensory-seeking” behaviors. 

Examples of sensory-seeking behaviors include:

  • Constantly being in motion, climbing, or jumping on furniture (seeking vestibular or proprioceptive sensory input)
  • Making loud noises, banging on objects, making loud music with instruments (seeking auditory stimulation)
  • Touching every object available, particularly if it has an interesting texture (seeking tactile stimulation)
  • Seeking out bright light, bright colors, or fast-moving images and objects (seeking visual stimulation)
  • Chewing on or tasting objects or food (seeking gustatory stimulation)

Sensory Avoiding Symptoms

Some children with SPD have hypersensitivity to sensory input. They experience frequent sensory overload from everyday activities, like going to school or shopping for groceries. That overload becomes too much, often resulting in a meltdown.

Sensory-avoiding children feel overwhelmed when they receive too much stimulation and will try to remove themselves from overstimulating situations. Older children may simply want to go to another room and be alone for a while, while younger kids often have tantrums.

Sensory-avoiding behaviors include:

  • Having severe temper tantrums in overstimulating environments
  • Running away from strong stimuli
  • Not wanting to be touched or hugged, even by loved ones
  • Refusing to wear clothing that feels too scratchy or tight
  • Seeking out calmer, quieter environments with fewer stimuli
  • Avoiding situations or environments that involve a lot of movement, like swings or merry-go-rounds

What does sensory processing disorder feel like? Sensory processing disorder feels overwhelming, like you’re under attack by your experiences. It may also feel as though everyday experiences are invasive, even ones that don’t seem to bother others. Many people with SPD describe what they feel as “sensory overload” or, conversely, the desperate need for more sensory stimuli.

What causes Sensory Processing Disorder?

We don’t know the exact cause of sensory processing disorder, but it’s likely that both environment and genetics play a role. There’s ongoing research into the causes of SPD, including changes in the brain and brain cells (neurons).

There’s some evidence that the prenatal environment can affect a child’s risk of developing SPD. Prenatal stress can change how the brain functions. 

Research has shown that maternal stress can cause differences in the function of dopamine receptors. These functional changes can cause SPD symptoms in animal models.

Scientists have also used twin studies to show there is a strong genetic component to SPD. Two identical twins, which share all the same genes, are more likely to have SPD than fraternal twins, who are as closely related as any two siblings.

Common Conditions That Accompany SPD

Sensory processing disorder is often present in children who also have learning disorders or developmental delays. In fact, parents usually learn their child has SPD when they receive a diagnosis for another disorder like autism spectrum disorder.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Over 90% of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience sensitivity to the information they receive through their senses. Professionals would describe most of these people as having sensory processing disorder

There’s a lot of co-occurrence between ASD and SPD. Sensory processing issues are so prevalent in children with ASD that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual lists sensory processing difficulties as a symptom that professionals can use to diagnose ASD.

Current research suggests that the autistic nervous system reacts to sensory information differently from the neurotypical nervous system. Autistic brains tend to pick out details better than larger-picture information due to neurological differences from non-autistic brains.


Children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or ADD often have symptoms of sensory processing disorder. In fact, around 40% of children diagnosed with ADHD may also have SPD. Children with both ADHD and SPD are also more likely to have anxiety.

The common thread between ADHD and SPD seems to be how sensory signals are interpreted in the brain and the inability to self-regulate in response. Children with ADHD are more likely to have sensory-seeking behavior and other behaviors typically associated with SPD.

Can you be diagnosed with sensory processing disorder? No, you can’t be diagnosed with sensory processing disorder because it’s not a formal disorder in the DSM. Your doctor may informally diagnose you with SPD, however, if you have intense symptoms.

Sensory processing disorder isn’t a mental illness, but it does affect how people function in their day-to-day lives.

Treating Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder can seem overwhelming, particularly if you’re a parent of a child who throws frequent tantrums or has other undesirable behaviors caused by SPD. Luckily there are very effective treatments for SPD that address both the symptoms and the biological cause.

What are the types of treatment for sensory processing disorder? The types of treatment for sensory processing disorder are functional medicine (addressing the biology causing the symptoms) or occupational therapy (retraining behavioral responses and symptoms of SPD).

Treatments for sensory processing disorder include:

  • Nutritional assessments: Nutritional assessments are the best way to ensure that your child doesn’t have any nutritional deficiencies that could be causing their sensory processing disorder. SPD symptoms can often be helped with diet and supplements.
  • Sensory integration therapy: One of the main treatments for Sensory processing disorder is sensory integration. Doing sensory integration therapy with an occupational therapist teaches children to have appropriate responses to sensory stimuli.
  • Detoxing from environmental toxins: Toxic chemicals in your child’s environment could be causing some of their SPD symptoms by affecting how well their brain works. In utero exposure to toxins may also change how the brain interprets sensory stimuli.
  • Eating an anti-inflammatory diet: Pro-inflammatory foods like gluten and casein can cause inflammation in the brain, which can cause SPD symptoms. Eliminating gluten and casein and eating fruits and vegetables can help alleviate neuroinflammation.
  • Promoting gut health: The gut-brain axis has a significant effect on how your brain functions. A healthy gut microbiome ensures the brain gets the nutrients it needs, and it helps reduce neuroinflammation, too.
  • Immune support: Neuroinflammation can also be caused by an overactive immune system. Autoimmune issues can also cause many behavioral and neurological problems, so maintaining a healthy immune system is a must.
  • Sensory diet: For patients with SPD, a “sensory diet” doesn’t usually involve food. Instead, caregivers help patients get the correct amount of stimulation, whether taking a short break from a stimulating environment or getting extra stimulation.

These treatments, most of which are natural, are an excellent place to start treating children or adults with sensory issues.

Looking Forward

Sensory processing disorder doesn’t have to derail someone’s everyday life. There are many effective treatments for SPD, so you don’t have to worry, “Will my child’s life be ruled by their SPD symptoms?”

The best treatments for SPD are treatments that address what’s making the brain process sensory stimuli incorrectly. A combination of nutrition, environmental detoxing, immune support, and occupational therapy can lead to significant improvements in SPD

At the M Center for Integrative Wellness, we specialize in functional pediatrics. Our aim is to treat the root cause of learning and behavioral problems instead of simply treating the symptoms. Our patients with SPD benefit from our advanced, individualized functional treatments.

If you’re concerned that your child may have sensory processing disorder — or any other learning disability or mental health problem — we want to help. Contact us to learn how we can help you address your child’s specific symptoms and needs.


    1. Miller, L. J., Fuller, D. A., & Roetenberg, J. (2014). Sensational kids: Hope and help for children with sensory processing disorder (SPD). Penguin.
    2. Miller, L. J., Nielsen, D. M., Schoen, S. A., & Brett-Green, B. A. (2009). Perspectives on sensory processing disorder: a call for translational research. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 3, 22. Full text:
    3. Robertson, C. E., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2017). Sensory perception in autism. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 18(11), 671–684.
    4. Koziol, L. F., & Budding, D. (2012). ADHD and sensory processing disorders: placing the diagnostic issues in context. Applied Neuropsychology: Child, 1(2), 137–144. Abstract:
    5. Ghanizadeh A. (2011). Sensory processing problems in children with ADHD, a systematic review. Psychiatry investigation, 8(2), 89–94. Full text:
    6. Delgado-Lobete, L., Pértega-Díaz, S., Santos-Del-Riego, S., & Montes-Montes, R. (2020). Sensory processing patterns in developmental coordination disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and typical development. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 100, 103608. Abstract:
    7. Clayton, G., Carrera, H. A., Martin, E. R., Morrison, D., & Bawazir, A. A. (2018). A Biomedical Approach Via Telemedicine in the Treatment of a Child With Sensory Processing Disorder Using Diet and High-dose Biotin Intervention: A Case Report. Integrative Medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 17(4), 52–58.
    8. Fazlioğlu, Y., & Baran, G. (2008). A sensory integration therapy program on sensory problems for children with autism. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 106(2), 415–422.
    9. Delgado, M. A., Fochesato, A., Juncos, L. I., & Gargiulo, P. Á. (2017). Metabolic Association Between the Gut–Brain Axis in Autism Spectrum Disorders. In Psychiatry and Neuroscience Update – Vol. II: A Translational Approach (pp. 465-476). Springer, Cham. Abstract:
    10. Daulatzai M. A. (2015). Non-celiac gluten sensitivity triggers gut dysbiosis, neuroinflammation, gut-brain axis dysfunction, and vulnerability for dementia. CNS & Neurological Disorders Drug Targets, 14(1), 110–131. Abstract: