What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
As beings living in a physical body, we interact with the world through our sensory system.
What is our Sensory System?
The sensory system is a network of neural pathways designed to relay information to the brain about the world around us. Sensory receptors are specialist cells designed to receive and relay stimulus from inside and outside of our bodies. When these messages are received in the brain they are interpreted and then recognized as our senses.
Sometimes this sensory system doesn’t function very well leading to difficulty in processing sensory information. Nowadays we call this disorder ‘sensory processing disorder’.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), has also been known by other names such as Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID) and Dysfunction in Sensory Integration (DSI). It was first acknowledged as a disorder by the late Jean Ayres, PhD, in the 1950’s. ‘She likened SPD to a neurological ‘traffic jam’ that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.’ (Spdstar.org, 2017)
We all know about the five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing.
Sensory information for these senses is received through the mouth, the skin, the eyes, the nose, and the ears which are all wonderfully designed to pick up and transmit sensory stimulus so that we can interact with the world around us.
However, neurologists believe there may be many more ‘extra’ senses. These include those that provide us with information about the inner state of our bodies, such as hunger, pain, the need to go to the loo etc.
These internal senses are also known as interoception – the sense of the internal state of the body.
Other less well-known internal senses include Proprioception and The Vestibular System.
‘First consider the senses that relate to the position of our bodies. Close your eyes, and then touch your right forefinger to your left elbow tip. Easy? How did you do it? Somehow you knew where the end of your finger was and you also knew the position of your left elbow. This sense is known as proprioception and it’s the awareness we have of where each of our body parts is located in space. Proprioception is possible thanks to receptors in our muscles known as spindles, which tell the brain about the current length and stretch of the muscles.’ (Jarrett, 2017)
The Vestibular System
‘Now imagine you are blindfolded and I tilted you forwards slowly. You’d immediately have a sensation of how your body’s position was changing in relation to gravity. This is thanks to the fluid-filled vestibular system in your inner ear, which helps us keep balance. This system also gives us our experience of acceleration through space, and it links up with the eyes, making it possible to cancel out our own motion. If you wiggle your head around while reading, for example, you’ll see that it makes little difference to your ability to read and stay focused on the words.’(Jarrett, 2017)
Sometimes the brain has trouble responding to sensory information both internal and external and this has an impact on day-to-day life.
According to Carol Stock Kranowitz, ‘When their central nervous systems are ineffective in processing sensory information, children have a hard time functioning in daily life.’ (Kranowitz, 2005)
Children can suffer from disorders that affect the processing of sensory information by causing over-sensitivity (hypersensitivity) – where children cannot cope with too much stimulation e.g. loud noises and touch, or under-sensitivity (hyposensitivity) – where children may actively seek stimulation e.g. they may need to keep moving and touching.
Those that have sensory hypersensitivity may have difficulties with:
Noise – even at a normal level noise can be intolerable and disturbing.
Light and strong patterns can hurt.
Tastes and smells can be overwhelming.
Touch can be torture.
Movement especially sudden movements such as being on a swing or being driven in a car may make them feel sick.
Those that have sensory hyposensitivity may have difficulties with:
Noise – they may seek out noise.
Light – They may be drawn to lights and shiny objects.
Tastes – they may enjoy strange, and strong, smells and taste.
Touch – they may like messy play, textures and heavy pressure
Movement – they may enjoy spinning and fast-moving play.
Some children with hyposensitivity may not have a sense of balance, they may continually bump into things, they may drop things, they may not be in control of their bodily functions, or they may eat all sorts of inappropriate things.
‘Sensory seeker, eats clothes, please design clothes that digest, its awful when it comes out the other end.’ (Designing Clothing for Children with Sensory Challenges, 2017)
Children with sensory processing disorder may feel isolated, they may lack self-confidence, withdraw, or exhibit outbursts of anger and inappropriate behaviour. These behaviours can be puzzling, extremely difficult to live with and they are often misunderstood. These children seem to be marching to a different tune.
‘… subtle areas of their nervous systems are not functioning as they should. These changes result in behaviors that confuse, frustrate, and anger parents and teachers. They wonder why these children lack self-help skills, become aggressive or withdrawn in a group, or refuse to participate in activities or sports.
. . . we need to remember that behaviors are a message, a symptom – not a diagnosis.’ (Silver 2005)
What these children experience on a daily basis is a form of torture. Torture victims are often subjected to the same kind of sensory information overload that children with SPD experience. The playing of nonstop music, 24-hour lighting, sleep deprivation and loss of comfort and choice are intended to disorientate, confuse, and destroy the mental abilities of prisoners.
‘Experimental studies with subjects exposed to intense auditory and visual stimuli showed heightened and sustained arousal, discomfort, mood changes, illusions and hallucinations and body image distortions, irritability, distraction, disorientation and a withdrawal from reality. Early work in this area reported that sensory overload could produce symptoms similar to various pathologies and produced thinking and behaviour, particularly speech content, associated with schizophrenia.’ (Leach, 2017)
Tactile defensiveness is the form of sensory processing disorder where a child has hypersensitivity to touch.
Typically, a child with a sensitivity to touch (tactile sensitivity) will avoid touch – whether from people or objects. They will probably have a clothing sensitivity disorder and need to wear sensory friendly clothing. They may also have other forms of SPD and other conditions – such as autism.They may dislike wearing most (or any) clothes.
(He) ‘… hates wearing any clothing, hits and punches and screams when getting him dressed. Will keep them on when out but will strip when at home..’ (Designing Clothing for Children with Sensory Challenges, 2017)
They may find clothes:
Difficult to put on
While they are distracted by all this sensory information, they may find it very difficult to make friends, enjoy social situations or to learn at school. Life at home may be difficult.
A child with any form of SPD should be seen by an occupational therapist who may create a sensory diet aimed at balancing the sensory information that the child is exposed to.
A sensory diet will be tailored to your child’s individual needs and may include, swinging, heavy pressure, fidget toys, music, weighted blankets, and messy play.
Reducing a child’s sensory overload by creating sensory friendly clothing for them to wear can contribute to their quality of life by creating a calm space in which they can concentrate on their social skills or education.
Mass produced clothing can be reintroduced slowly when the child feels ready to deal with them.
Clothes to Make Kids Happy
Typically, the sensory friendly clothing in my range includes:
A loose fit with low necklines
External or enclosed seams
Clothes that can be worn ‘back to front’
Interesting elements to hold the child’s attention
Tags to which toys, fidget blankets, chews and labels can be attached
I have created these sewing patterns for children’s clothes to help you and your child enjoy life to the full. The clothes are designed to make kids happy!
I hope that they will also make the wider family – and social group – a happy place as well.
For more information see my Masters Degree Report available to view or buy at Blurb.com
Spdstar.org. (2017). About SPD. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].
Jarrett, C. (2017). Psychology: How many senses do we have?. [online] Bbc.com. Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].
Kranowitz, C. (2005). The out-of-sync child. New York: Perigee Book.
Silver, L.B. (2005) Foreword.In: C.Kranowitz The Out of Sync Child. New York: Perigee
Leach, J. (2017). Psychological factors in exceptional, extreme and torturous environments.
Maddock, R (2017). Survey: Designing Clothing for Children with Sensory Challenges. Hereford: Unpublished.