Sensory Processing Disorder

SEND specialist, Cheryl Bedding, shares information on the extra three senses and how you can support and enable a child who may have undeveloped senses to thrive.

We’re all aware of the five basic senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. The organs associated with each sense send information to the brain to help us understand and perceive the world around us. These five senses can be impacted through disability, illness or disorder, manifesting in hearing or visual impairments.

But you may not be aware of the other three senses? Knowing and understanding what these are to help you can identify, support and enable a child who may have underdeveloped senses to thrive and enjoy all that life has to offer…

  • Vestibular sense – Our sense of balance, co-ordination, our freely flowing movement.
  • Proprioceptive sense – Where we are in relation to objects and people around us, where we are in space.
  • Interoceptive sense – Helping you feel and understand what’s going on inside your body, your internal organ’s ability to send clear messages to the brain.

As adults we might not like a certain woolly jumper, rollercoasters, the smell of petrol or feel of cotton wool, but we are able to carry on with our daily life and are able to use our own self-regulation strategies to deal with these issues when they arise.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that impacts our brain’s ability to process and manage sensory input that occurs from our environment and often results in a response that is deemed inappropriate for the situation.

For example, a child may find a shopping centre too noisy and too busy. Rather than asking to leave or hold onto their parent’s hand a little tighter, they progress quickly into a fight or flight situation and respond in a way that can be difficult to watch and tricky to deal with.

Children can be either sensory avoiders, sensory seekers or a combination of the two, and this can make everyday functioning in society hard to manage. Resulting situations and reactions can be hard to read, predict and support. It is particularly difficult for those who may not yet be able to verbalise how they are feeling in certain situations.

Many children with SPD may also face challenges with clothing - seams, labels, rough textiles - and refuse to wear certain things. Parents can face daily battles to get their child into their school uniforms and often socks or tights can be an issue due to them feeling the seams on their toes.

Some of the examples below can be an indicator of SPD in young children:

  • A strong aversion or reaction to messy play
  • Separating the food on a plate, eating one food type at a time
  • Places hands over their ears when a room gets too noisy
  • Avoiding contact with anyone else, refusing to wear an apron or craving contact through rough play
  • Not showing distress when they’re hurt or being overly sensitive to minor pain
  • Sniffing people, toys and food
  • Putting everything in their mouth and likes to chew
  • Adopting a rocking or spinning motion, or likes to be upside down

Suffolk Family Carers estimates that between 5% and 16.5% of the general population have symptoms associated with sensory processing disorder. These figures are even higher for people with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)*

Supporting Your Child at Home

Observe and get to know your child’s triggers, once you do, try to pre-empt situations, therefore giving you the ability to remove or lessen the impact.

Try to eliminate additional stressors that impact sensory overload, consider what situations you can avoid.

Talk through things with your child before-hand, prepare them for situations, give them the opportunity to talk through coping strategies with you.

Use equipment that can lessen the impact - noise reducing headphones, taking paper towels with you into public bathrooms to avoid using the hand dryers, allowing your child to play with a soother for when they become anxious or stressed in situations, using chewy sticks or other similar equipment that can support a child who has an oral fixation.

Pick your battles. Some things are not worth fighting over as they can create higher levels of stress and anxiety for everyone.

Offer your child lots of reassurance and try to learn what your child needs in times of stress. Sometimes they may need close comfort and a supportive hug, other times they just need to know you’re there for them, close by, but not touching them. Sometimes a quiet calm space is needed, maybe a darkened room with some calming music or maybe a sensory lava lamp or bubble machine.

Seek support for yourself and if you can, build a support network of other parents who understand.

Additional Resources

National Autistic Society (

Sensory differences - a guide for all audiences (

Sensory Processing Disorder — ASD Helping Hands

Sensory Processing Disorder - The OT Practice