Sensory Processing Sensitivity, Sensory Processing Disorder or Both?

Picture it. A four-year-old is all dolled up in a in a lacy dress and matching gloves, holding a basket of flowers and ready to sprinkle petals as her aunt prepares to walk down the aisle. As her turn approaches the little one begins to whine, “I don’t want to go.”  She pulls off the itchy gloves and the tears start to flow… A tantrum is underway as she shrieks, “Take the dress off me! It’s too scratchy!!! No I don’t want to throw the flowers and you can’t make me!!!”


Let’s break down some of the reasons this child may be having such a BIG reaction… she may have Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). There is the possibility that she has both SPS and SPD (SPSD.) In addition, she may be acting in response to family stress, the lack of preparation for the event or a sudden overwhelming anxiety caused by a combination of the above factors.  

Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) and Highly Sensitive People (HSP) ‘have’ Sensory Processing Sensitivity. This term speaks to a trait that 15-20% of the population experience, whereby a heavy volume of sensory information bombards their nervous system, often causing over-stimulation. When this happens to a child they can become dis-regulated and need help processing their thoughts, emotions and behavior.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity is best understood using Dr. Elaine Aron’s acronym, D.O.E.S., which refers to: Depth of Processing; Overstimulation; Emotional Intensity; and Sensory Sensitivity.

These four qualities are found in every person with Sensory Processing Sensitivity. The way these traits manifest in each HSP can vary. One of the variations of trait expression can be linked to how sensitivity is understood (or misunderstood) and accepted (or rejected) in childhood. Familial, cultural, religious and academic influences can also play a part in the way SPS is expressed.

Depth of processing is at the foundation of the highly sensitive experience and refers to the HSP’s need to reflect more, or hang back and observe, before engaging. This aspect also speaks to the highly sensitive person’s rich inner world and tendency to inwardly reflect on experiences, conversations and events

Over-stimulation naturally occurs because HSPs take in so much information and process life so deeply. As HSPs learn self-care practices that keep them in control of their emotions, they learn how to handle overstimulation without breaking down.

Emotional intensity speaks to how deeply HSPs feel. While neuro-typical people experience sadness and happiness, highly sensitive people experience the same feelings in extremes, often describing depression, hopelessness, despair, joy, ecstasy and elation. Positive and negative emotions are heightened and feel more intense.

Sensing the subtle refers to the ability to discern nuance. HSPs perceive more through their senses because they have more sensitive nervous systems. Have you ever walked into a friend’s home and noticed new pillows on the sofa? Do you notice when someone makes a slight change to their hairstyle or color? Are you ever distracted (or bothered) by the hum of a refrigerator or buzzing of lights? Does art, poetry or music speak to you on a deeper level? Constantly experiencing these subtle experiences allows for greater joy and connection as well as easier overstimulation and need for downtime.

There is no diagnosis or treatment for SPS. This is part of temperament and stays with a person throughout their lifetime. In the case of our four-year-old flower girl, she needed to be given several ‘practice runs’ so she had time to process the upcoming experience before the big moment came. Highly sensitive children can learn how to handle emotional and energetic overload when adults are tuned in and mindful of their needs.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) refers to neurological disordering that occurs when the brain cannot process sensory information properly. Sensory input may move too quickly, too slowly, be misinterpreted by the brain or end up in the wrong “neural destination.” This can lead to what looks like misbehavior but is really due to neurological disordering which makes the misbehavior ‘feel’ normal.

There are six subtypes of Sensory Processing Disorder. They manifest in very different ways, which makes it hard to offer a simple umbrella understanding of SPD:

  • Sensory Over Responsive
  • Sensory Under Responsive
  • Sensory Craving
  • Sensory Discrimination
  • Sensory Based Motor
  • Postural Disorder
  • Dyspraxia

Most often, when Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Sensory Processing Disorder are both present it’s with the Sensory Over Responsivity (SOR) subtype. Since one of the qualities of SPS is in sensing the subtle (taking in ‘more’ information through the senses) it’s not uncommon for SOR to manifest alongside.

In the scenario at the start of the article, the four-year-old has SPSD (both SPS and SPD) making her extra reactive to tactile input. (We know this, because Melissa was this little girl…!) The anxiety of being looked at and scrutinized by so many people, the newness of the experience and the overwhelming energy of being shuffled around in a bridal party became “too much” for a highly sensitive child with SPD to handle.

The physical discomfort of her party dress and lacy gloves was the final straw for her already rattled nervous system and sparked a tantrum.

Adults who are aware of these legitimate struggles can remain conscious and alert to these types of ‘set ups’ and can prepare children like Melissa to navigate potentially overpowering happenings so there are less tears and more giggles.

Since Sensory Processing Sensitivity is part of temperament it cannot be changed. It does need to be understood and accepted in order for children to become resilient and learn how to regulate their emotions. Children with Sensory Processing Disorder can be helped and it’s imperative that parents and professionals find occupational therapists to support children as soon as indications of SPD are noticed. The earlier a child receives Sensory Integration Therapy (a play based approach to help ‘rewire’ the brain) the easier it is to remedy any neurological disordering.

To learn more about SPSD visit www.SPSDkids.com