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What sensory processing disorder is like and how occupational therapists can help.

LEND - Sensory Processing in Children

A young boy in a plaid shirt with curly brown hair covers his ears with his hands.

A young boy in a plaid shirt with curly brown hair covers his ears with his hands.

Written by Megan Yingling
LEND trainee in Occupational Therapy

Imagine walking down a crowded sidewalk in a bustling city. Your phone is ringing somewhere in the depths of your bag and you’re digging around trying to find it. People are bumping into you on all sides, there’s loud music and the honking of cars, ads are flashing on billboards, and some awful greasy smell is hanging in the air. You finally find your phone and answer, listening to your friend talk about their day. The traffic light is flashing ahead, cold wind is blowing in your face, your sweater is really itchy on your back, someone yells as they’re passing by you. Your friend asks a question on the phone, but you haven’t really been listening and you have no idea what they just asked you. In this instance, your sensory system was overwhelmed. There was so much information that your body was taking in - the people bumping into you and the cold air, the lights, the music, the smells, your itchy sweater - you couldn’t concentrate on anything else. This is how a child with sensory processing disorder feels all the time. All. The. Time. 


Can you imagine if every second of your day felt like walking down that busy sidewalk? You would be exhausted from all the information your body was constantly taking in. Children with sensory processing disorder, or SPD, sense things in everyday life as if they were on that crowded sidewalk. A tag in their shirt might feel like someone constantly scratching their back. The lumpy texture of applesauce might feel like a cold wind blowing in their face. A dripping faucet might sound like a cacophony of loud noises. Unable to properly process these sensations, children with SPD often show behaviors such as tantrums, inattention, or anxiousness. These behaviors are most likely a result of that same overwhelming feeling you felt when you stepped into their shoes walking down that bustling street. 


Encouragingly, there are techniques that can help these children “teach” their sensory systems to respond appropriately. Occupational therapists work with children with SPD, teaching them how to filter out and better process their heightened sensations. By better integrating their sensory systems, they will be able to function better in their everyday lives. 


Next time you’re walking down a city street, pause for a moment and think about the last time you saw a child having a tantrum. Consider if their sensory system might’ve been overloaded by the sights, sounds, and/or smells that they were experiencing in that instance. By looking at the world through your “sensory goggles”, you can better understand the experiences of a child with sensory processing disorder. 


More information on Sensory Processing Therapy available here:

AOTA Fact Sheet on Sensory Integration

Understood - What you need to know about sensory integration therapy


The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Cristy James

Cristina James is the Data Coordinator, Associate Training Director, and Family Discipline Coordinator in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Development at Indiana University School of Medicine. She has over 10 years of professional experience and a life-long lived experience in neurodevelopmental disorders which, combined with her analytical skills, allow her to effectively span across functions to help provide and improve many LEND outcomes.