Unbearable Sensations: Life with Sensory Processing Disorder

man plugging ears

Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that interferes with the body’s ability to receive messages from the senses, and convert those messages into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. It has been likened to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.

Someone with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which makes performing many everyday tasks more difficult. They are unable to to filter out unimportant, background stimuli in their environment. Left untreated, SPD can result in depression, underachievement and social isolation.

SPD is most commonly diagnosed in children, but people who reach adulthood without treatment can continue to experience symptoms and be affected by their inability to accurately and appropriately interpret sensory messages. As many as 10 percent of children experience some type of sensory processing challenge. In addition, individuals with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders are more likely to develop SPD. It is currently thought that SPD may have a genetic component.

The Symptoms of SPD

The most common symptoms can include:

  • Extreme sensitivity to stimuli in the environment – sounds, light, smells. This can be in one or more senses.
  • Being uncoordinated and bumping into things
  • Inability to tell where one’s limbs are in space
  • Difficulty engaging in conversation or play
  • Alternately suffering from sensory overload at times and seeking stimulation at others.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Many adults or families with an affected child find that it is hard to get help. That’s because sensory processing disorder isn’t a recognized medical diagnosis yet. Despite the lack of widely accepted diagnostic criteria, occupational therapists commonly see and treat children and adults with sensory processing problems.

The first step in treatment is getting evaluated – usually by an occupational therapist. An evaluation may include a physical exam, speech and language evaluation, and psychological questioning.

Treatment can take several forms:

  • Sensory integration – This involves using a controlled, stimulating environment to challenge the senses without overwhelming the patient. The idea is to extend the learned, appropriate responses to sensory stimuli the patient is likely to encounter in everyday life.
  • Lifestyle changes – These include things that the patient can change to reduce sensory overload – e.g., using noise cancelling headphones, avoiding certain types of clothing, or wearing sunglasses.

SPD can make life difficult and uncomfortable for sufferers, but with diagnosis and treatment its detrimental effects can be controlled.


  1. https://www.additudemag.com/what-is-sensory-processing-disorder/
  2. http://www.spdfoundation.net/about-sensory-processing-disorder.html
  3. https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/understanding-sensory-processing-issues
  4. https://www.webmd.com/children/sensory-processing-disorder#1
  5. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2018/06/410786/unbearable-sensation-being-living-sensory-processing-disorder

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