Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a diagnostic term which describes an individual who is not able to effectively process and integrate sensory information from their environment. Information from one’s senses (e.g. sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, movement, proprioceptive and vestibular inputs) is not organized appropriately for the individual to carry out activities and interact with the environment as we would expect. An individual may have difficulty integrating information from one sensory system or a variety of sensory systems.
Which sensory systems are impacted and how an individual responds to this sensory information results in how the disorder presents itself in any given person. Most of us carry out our daily activities with ease, often without even thinking about them. We constantly detect, regulate, interpret and respond to sensory input. Through no fault of their own, individuals with SPD are not able to do this successfully. They consequently often have immense difficulty with the simplest daily task and need to exert much effort throughout their day to carry out the demands that are placed on them. This may be a child attending a playgroup who has difficulty engaging in exploration and social interaction; to an adult who struggles to function in her office environment and meet the work and social demands faced each day.
Imagine yourself in a world where something as basic as the pull of gravity or the touch of other people is perceived as unreliable, inconsistent, or threatening. You would not feel secure and safe, you might not be able to have fun, and your self-esteem might be compromised as you realized that you were not able to do things as well as your peers. As individuals, we all like different things, dislike some other things, and avoid certain things, but for individuals with SPD their difficulty integrating sensory information often leads to feelings of discomfort and fear, or may lead to a need to seek out more sensory experiences to feel organized and able to engage.
SPD can result in delays in motor skills and problems with self-regulation, attention, and behavior that can affect performance in school, at home, with peers, and during leisure and work activities. The diagnosis of SPD should only be made if the sensory processing difficulties impair daily routines, roles or functional, skilled performance. Diagnosing SPD can be challenging as this disorder includes a variety of different manifestations. Areas of difficulty include sensory modulation dysfunction (also known as sensory defensiveness), sensory discrimination difficulties, praxis disorders and postural-ocular challenges.
These are not clear-cut subgroups and many individuals experience difficulties in a number of these areas. Many researchers and clinicians are involved in identifying subgroups of Sensory Processing Dysfunction to aid in its recognition and to establish the most effective treatment models.