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Sensory Processing Disorder: The New ADHD?

By HERWriter
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move over ADHD, make room for sensory processing disorder Divakaran Dileep/PhotoSpin

An Introduction to Sensory Processing Disorder

Until recently, sensory processing disorder has always been associated with ADHD or autism, and not always recognized as its own distinct disorder. It’s also not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychiatrists and psychologists. (1)

“Sensory processing disorders (SPD) are more prevalent in children than autism and as common as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, yet the condition receives far less attention partly because it’s never been recognized as a distinct disease.” (1)

Sensory processing disorders affect 5-16 percent of school-aged children in the United States. (2)

What is Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder is a global umbrella term that includes all three primary types — sensory modulation disorder, sensory discrimination disorder, and sensory-based motor disorder. (5)

Occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., described SPD as a neurological “traffic jam” that “keeps certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.” (4) When the brain struggles to read the sensory inputs, individuals may appear agitated or confused. (3)

Children (and adults) who struggle to process their environment may demonstrate clumsiness, poor fine motor skills, easy distractibility, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression and school failure. (4) They may react inappropriately or hyperactively to sounds, sights and textures. (1,3)

Because children with SPD have difficulty listening, focusing, and processing information, they may be thought to have ADHD, but SPD is different. (3) With SPD, the observed hyperactivity is usually in response to certain things that happened or didn’t happen in the surrounding environment.

The SPD Foundation has a list of red flags that could indicate that your child might have SPD. You can see that list here.

The SPD Foundation also has a checklist of characteristics for children who might have sensory processing disorder. You can see that list here.

Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder

The treatments and methods of coping with SPD are also different because the cause of the hyperactive behavior is different. “ADHD patients typically undergo a blend of psychological therapies and stimulant medications, but SPD patients need to work more on occupational therapy ...” (3)

Interestingly, most children with SPD are just as intelligent as their peers and many are intellectually gifted. The key to bringing this intellect out is for teachers and educational assistants to implement teaching methods that work with how the child processes information. This is usually accomplished in cooperation and consultation with an occupational therapist.

It is important to remember that SPD can exist on its own or in conjunction with ADHD or autism or other spectrum disorders.

Further reading on sensory processing fisorder:

Prevalence of Parents’ Perceptions of Sensory Processing Disorders Among Kindergarten Children.

Sensory Processing in Children With and Without Autism: A Comparative Study Using the Short Sensory Profile

The Out-of-sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder by: Carol Stock Kranowitz

Sensational Kids by Lucy J. Miller


1. Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids. Bunim, Juliana. University of California San Francisco. Web. Retrieved Dec 16, 2013.

2. Abnormal white matter microstructure in children with sensory processing disorders. Owen, Julia P. et al. NeuroImage: Clinical, Volume 2, 2013, Pages 844–853. Web. Retrieved Dec 16, 2013.

3. Chicago Speech Therapy: The Difference Between ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder. George, Karen. Chicago Speech Therapy. Web. Retrieved Dec 16, 2013.

4. About SPD. SPD Foundation. Web. Retrieved Dec 16, 2013.

5. Subtypes of SPD. SPD Foundation. Web. Retrieved Dec 16, 2013.

Reviewed December 17, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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