Behavior Issues & Sensory Integration Disorder in Children

By Jaime Budzienski
Kids with SPD are often overwhelmed by sensory information like light, touch and sound.
Kids with SPD are often overwhelmed by sensory information like light, touch and sound.

Sensory integration, or sensory processing, refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses -- and then turns this information into motor and behavioral responses, according to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation. In children with Sensory Integration Disorder, commonly referred to as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), these sensory signals are unorganized, resulting in certain behavioral issues. With proper therapy, kids can learn ways to successfully manage their challenges with processing sensory information. Though SPD is no longer recognized as an official diagnosis in the DSM-V, you can still seek treatment. A diagnosis usually begins with a screening at school, your doctor's office or a private clinic. From there, an occupational therapist will do a more comprehensive evaluation and make recommendations.

Sensory Processing Disorder Explained

Activities like eating spaghetti, riding a tricycle and reading a book all require the processing of sensation, or sensory integration, notes the SPD Foundation. Leading occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D. compares SPD to a "neurological traffic jam," which prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information it needs to read sensory information in the correct way. Because of this "jam," kids with SPD face challenges in everyday tasks. Some children with SPD over-respond and show extreme sensitivity to clothing, light, sound or physical touch. Others under-respond and show little or no reaction to sensory stimuli. Another subset of kids with SPD appear to be in sensory overdrive and crave constant stimulation -- often, this group is misdiagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).


The causes of SPD are currently being studied by researchers at the SPD Foundation and their collaborators. Preliminary research indicates it's often inherited, and that prenatal and birth complications may play a role. Similar to many developmental and behavioral disorders, the causes of SPD are likely to be the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Behavioral Impact

Kids with SPD have difficulty performing motor skills and other abilities typically needed to have social success and to accomplish the milestones of childhood. As a result, they often become socially isolated and suffer from low self-esteem and other social/emotional issues. These stressors can manifest in certain behaviors, and before a proper diagnosis, children with SPD are often described as being uncooperative, belligerent, disruptive, aggressive or out of control.


Kids with SPD are just as intelligent and capable as their peers, the SPD Foundation says. Their brains are just wired differently, and they need to be taught in a style that is adapted to how they uniquely process information, as well as participate in recreational activities that match their sensory processing needs. Children with SPD benefit from a treatment program that includes occupational therapy with a sensory integration approach (OT-SI). This usually takes place in a sensory-rich environment sometimes called the "OT gym." The OT leads the child through fun activities structured to foster appropriate responses to sensations in a fun, active way. Over time, he's able to generalize appropriate responses to home and school, participate more fully in play with friends and experience less stress surrounding eating, dressing and sleeping.

About the Author

Jaime Budzienski has contributed essays and articles to the "Boston Globe Sunday Magazine," "Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine" and the "Boston Parents Paper." She holds a B.F.A. in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College and a master's degree in education from UMASS Boston.