Written by Marie Duke, MA, MAEd. and Susan H. Christiansen

Children have a barrage of sensory input every day. Some children can take that input without concern. However, for an increasing number of children, too much sensory information can be overwhelming.

As parents, we want to make sure that our children can cope with the challenges that face them, but sensory processing challenges can be difficult and long-lasting.

Sensory processing muscles are mental and physical muscles we use to function throughout our days. Some kids may appear clumsy, forgetful, or have trouble learning in school.

This difficulty may be a function of sensory processing disorder and not because the child is being lazy or insolent.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is becoming more common as an independent disorder and in conjunction with children who have ADHD or Autism.

What Are Sensory Processing Challenges?

Sensory processing challenges are any group of disorders that occur through touch, smell, taste, sound, or vision, as you may imagine. However, balance, spatial, and interoceptive senses are also affected.

“SPD is diagnosed based on the presence of difficulties in detecting, modulating, interpreting, or organizing sensory stimuli to an extent that these deficits impair daily functioning and participation (Miller et al., 2005).

A sensory processing disorder graphic that shows symptoms and describes types.

Click on the Sensory Processing Disorder Infographic for a checklist of SPD symptoms and a brief overview of SPD.

People with challenges processing these types of input may have one or more of three types of sensory processing challenges.

Sensory Modulation Disorder[1]

Sensory Modulation Disorders create challenges with the response to stimuli. For example, the person may over-or under-react to stimuli. They may also crave stimuli, but stimuli increase disorganization and cravings.

Sensory Discrimination Disorder[2]

People with this type of disorder can’t use their senses to make choices. For instance, they may not perceive that the water is going to be too hot to touch. They often get blamed for messing up and making messes. They can’t determine the heaviness, difficulty, or challenges to the senses when doing tasks. These tasks may be daily tasks, but there is no muscle or sensory memory. They often cannot discriminate between sensory inputs.

Sensory Motor Disorders[3]

People with these disorders have trouble with physical/ spatial movement and planning. They may have difficulty with motor planning, like how to jump over an object rather than simply jumping

3 Types of Sensory Processing Disorder

An icon graphic for Sensory Processing Disorder Type 1 - Sensory Modulation Disorder.

Sensory Modulation Disorder

The ability to receive input from our surroundings, determine the appropriate threat level, and respond appropriately is vital. People with this disorder may become very upset over loud sounds like a balloon popping or grossed out at the dinner table because someone is chewing too loudly. On the other hand, they may not hear you calling for them when engrossed in reading a book or watching TV. The three types are:

1) Over-responsivity: overreact to stimuli, may go into fight or flight mode or appear defensive.

2) Under-responsive: underreact to stimuli, may appear to daydream, be a loner, be apathetic, or like to chew things.

3) Sensory-seeking:  needs intense stimulation to feel senses, may rush around, not notice they are hurt, break crayons or toys, or accidentally hurt others.

An icon graphic for Sensory Processing Disorder Type 2 - Sensory Discrimination Disorder.

Sensory Discrimination Disorder

Being unable to discriminate (determine) differences using the senses.

♦ Auditory difficulty: Your son might say, “Did you say ‘cat’ or ‘mat’?” If your child has trouble hearing and remembering the sounds of letters or looks to your mouth to see what they are hearing.

♦ Visual game to strengthen senses: Let’s play a game together, “Name everything in this room that is a circle.”

♦ Interoceptive awareness of body function: Your child may say, “That’s so cool! I can feel my heart beating faster when I run!”

♦ Proprioceptive games to develop and increase awareness of the body: Follow the Leader or Simon Says. Any game identifying the texture or temperature of items such as the grass or a cold glass of lemonade will help.

An icon graphic for Sensory Processing Disorder Type 3 - Sensory Motor Disorder.

Sensory Motor Disorder

Sensory motor deficits deal with two bodily functions:

dyspraxia (difficulty generating, planning, and executing ideas) and

postural issues (understanding where you body is in the physical space around you, proficient or clumsy movement, and tiring quickly).

These present as difficulty with:

1) balance: being able to maneuver through a group of people without bumping into anyone or anything.

2) gross and fine motor skills: correctly holding a pencil to write neatly and clearly or running without tripping.

3) difficulty performing routine movements: putting on socks and shoes correctly or remembering to gather supplies before leaving for school.

Helping Children With Sensory Processing Disorders

If you have a child with one of these disorders, you have probably wondered how you will help them reach all of their goals. Keep in mind that these diso4rders do not indicate your child’s potential or intelligence.

Children with Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD) can lead “normal” lives with help. (Normal is in quotation marks because every life is different and normal is relative.)

The goal of SPD intervention is for the child to be aware of how their bodies work and learn how to self-regulate through activities and thought processes. Children can play sensory-friendly games at home, in classrooms, or during car rides.

These games and activities can include sensory input, but you can often control that input rather than having an overwhelming amount of input at one time. Some activities are classics that children have played for decades.

Sensory-Friendly Games and Activities

Hands-on Fun

  1. Playdough – Children need the tactile input from the playdough to strengthen their hands and muscles. These children also get a unique tactile experience as playdough is not a common feeling texture.
  2. Slime, putty, and clay are some alternatives to playdough.
  3. Finger painting – Children with challenges with tactile or texture senses can also benefit from some finger painting exercises. For sensory seekers, this exercise may also offer some controlled input. For students with sensory-motor control issues, this may simply offer a stimulus to exercise gross and fine motor skills simultaneously.
  4. Playing with your food can also be fun – painting with pudding, mashed potatoes, or other soft foods may give the same inputs as finger painting but change the olfactory inputs.

Skill Building Success

  1. Cooking – Let children cook meals or treats. They can explore textures before, during, and after. Cooking is also full of changing flavors, smells, and sometimes sounds.
  2. An alternative to cooking can be a craft that requires baking, mixing or even tie-dying. The visual, olfactory, and tactile changes in these activities give children excellent input.
  3. Exercise and weight lifting – No, you are not trying to get your child to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Still, you can allow children with motor function concerns the opportunity to explore different exercises and weights to determine the muscle groups required to lift heavier objects.
  4. You can also use objects rather than traditional weights. Water jugs, canned food, a stick of deodorant, and a bottle of shampoo have different sizes and shapes, requiring different muscle control to lift them.

Outdoor Exploring

  1. Have fun at the playground – When possible, let your child play on playground equipment. Slides, rock walls, steps, mulch or ground cover, grass, concrete, and swings can offer a variety of tactile, visual, spatial, kinesthetic, and auditory input to help children discover changes in sensory environments.
  2. Have children explore sensory objects at home. Find stairs, carpet, brick, furniture, and other items for children to climb on, under, or through and describe their experiences.
  3. Bath time – Baths are great times for sensory input. The water temperature, soap or suds, bath toys, and washcloths or sponges all have sensory stimuli. Some can be positive or negative for children, so monitoring what they prefer in terms of texture, temperature, depth of water, smoothness of soap, or even squishiness of bath toys can help children ease into various sensory stimuli.
  4. Sensory tables – a sensory table or water play table can allow children to explore water play, soaps, sand, rocks, or other stimuli for shorter periods and their preferred stimuli. You can also introduce new sounds, textures, temperatures, or tasks at a slower rate if you choose.

Recommended Sensory Processing Disorder Books

The Out-of-Sync Child, written by Carol Stock Kranowitz, M.A., is a favorite because Ms. Kranowitz was first to break down SPD into language for parents and professionals alike. She offers a drug-free approach and includes informatino on SPD in ADHD and autism.

Rosalee the Seeker: A Sensory Processing Disorder Story, written by Nicole Filippone, introduces SPD through the eyes of a young girl, Rosalee. Rosalee has lots of energy and is usually happy. She starts seeing a therapist who helps her learn to be more organized and less impulsive.

Raising A Sensory Smart Child, written by three professionals who work with SPD issues every day, provides practical tips, strategies, and suggestions for working with your child. They provide a sensory diet program and help to mitigate emotional distress. 

Sensory Processing 101, written by several co-authors, offers plenty of practical advice and templates from red flag checklists to sensory shopping lists, suggestions for working with professionals and behaviors to look for and solutions that work.

Helping Your Child Overcome Sensory Processing Disorders

Helping your children overcome sensory processing disorders is primarily about exposure and control. Children who seek stimuli can be eased into fewer stimuli or shorter periods of stimulation so that they become calmer.

Children who avoid stimuli can also be extended in their exposure creating more endurance.

For children with perception, gross motor, or motor planning concerns, you can work with them to recognize more sensory stimuli gradually by introducing them to more difficult tasks or challenging them to sort or move according to input.

Occupational and physical therapy is often required for children with sensory processing disorders, but you can do the above activities at home to supplement therapy.

Work with your child’s therapist to make sure that you are meeting their needs and doing what is best for them. The therapist may have some preferred activities or suggestions as well. Creating a cohesive team for your child will help them grow and develop more fully.

If you have a child with a sensory processing disorder, do you do any of these activities or others? If so, what works well for your child?