Sensory Processing Disorder: 'My child is often labeled as bold and distracting'

SPD is when people, usually children, have trouble managing information that comes in through the senses. These challenges can have a big impact on learning and on everyday life, as Amanda Cassidy discovered after chatting to those whose children are affected. 

"For my son it's more sensory overload that he has trouble with. We noticed when he was about a year old that certain sounds would really freak him out like the doorbell or the phone. It was definitely one of the first signs," explains Tracey, whose son, Ely is now seven years old.

"When he was a little older he couldn't bear certain clothes and materials touching his skin. We had to put on his socks inside out and cut all the labels off everything. The uniform was impossible, which is why we chose a school that didn't have one".

Related: What else you might be mistaking for ADHD


Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition where the brain has trouble organising and responsibly to information from the senses. The result can make a child feel very overwhelmed. Children tend to fall into one of two categories, over-sensitivity which leads to sensory avoiding, and under-sensitivity, which causes children to be sensory seeking.

Perpetual overdrive

The hypo-sensitive student will have an increased tolerance for movement. These kids need to keep moving in order to function.  They might fidget, wiggle, and bounce in their seat.

"These are the children with an appetite for sensation that is in perpetual overdrive."

You will see these students jumping up and down in their chair, sitting on their feet and swaying, hanging upside down at their desk, and falling out of their seat. These are the children with an appetite for sensation that is in perpetual overdrive.

"It's not that he won't do things, it is because he can't."


Deirdre's nine-year-old son Jack falls into the sensory seeking category. He craves certain sensations which can often be problematic in a school or social setting. "Jack has sensory issues that revolve around vestibular processing which is his position in space. He feels unanchored most of the time.

This means he craves something called proprioception, which is using force to find the location of his muscles and joints. It comes across as kicking the legs of his chair or banging off people on purpose. He is the child that can't sit still on a chair, that gets easily distracted and who tries to lift other boys up in the yard."

"He is just trying to 'find' himself in space, anchor himself to the world a little more."

Jack's difficulty regulating and modulating his responses to his environment also get him in trouble. "Spinning around really helps him satisfy this sensory craving but you can't just get up in class and start spinning or rolling around in PE when the teacher is asking you to stand in line.

He is often labelled 'bold' and distracting but it's not that he won't do things, it is because he can't. It isn't an excuse, I'm hard on him when he acts out but often he is just trying to 'find' himself in space, anchor himself to the world a little more".

"Around 1 in every 6 children experience sensory symptoms that might be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life and functions".

Sarah-Beth's daughter Olivia also has trouble at school when it comes to her handwriting. She was diagnoses with Sensory Processing Disorder and Dyspraxia by an Occupational Therapist last year. She is in second class but her mother says that her writing is falling behind. "She mainly has trouble with eye-hand coordination.  Writing on lines and coloring between lines is difficult.


Olivia has difficulties with depth perception so she presses too hard on the page and the pencil might break, or the paper tear, she rubs it out too hard. Her writing is also painfully slow as a result of poor motor skills so her classmates are usually five sentences ahead. She beats herself up over it and is really starting to feel different."

A confusing place

To process our senses, our central nervous system has to effectively register certain sensory information from our environment - this means filtering the parts we don't need, organising and interpreting the information and adjusting our nervous system to deal with that data.

Most of the main senses develop appropriately as we are babies, being carried in certain positions, swung in our mother's arms, crawling and developing. But if these systems, particularly the proprioceptive, vestibular and touch sensory systems don't function correctly, the child can have poor reactions to his environment, he might over or under respond. He might feel insecure in his environment and lead to poor body perception.

It's believed that around one in every six children experience sensory symptoms that might be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life and functions.

Deirdre says she's always blamed herself for Jack's difficulties. "I felt it was something I did or didn't do when he was a baby". But research has shown that SPD is often inherited.


Prenatal and birth complications have also been implicated as well as environmental factors. With any development and behavioural disorder, the causes are most likely to be the result of factors that are both genetic and environmental.


Happily there are treatments available for those with sensory symptoms. One of the main challenges is getting the correct diagnosis - as it can often be confused with ADHD. Children with SPD can benefit from a treatment program of occupational therapy (OT) with a regulation, relationship, and sensory integration (SI) approach.

These 'OT gym' sessions allow the child to have fun which is subtly structured so the child is being challenged but always successful. The goal is to help the child behave in a more functional way and to teach them appropriate responses to the environment both at school, at home and in the larger community.

"I'd love more people to know about it so I don't always have to explain myself and so she isn't always labelled as the bold one"

This is something Sarah-Beth is working on with Olivia. "The world is a confusing place for my daughter at the moment. She's taught herself coping strategies. When she's sitting, she moves continuously to support her position-in-space and this makes her unavailable to her learning environment."

Unhelpful label


Weighted lap-pads, sensory breaks, even wearing a neo-prene vest under their clothes are some of the things OTs recommend. In some cases, assisted technology is useful so the emphasis is on what's being learnt instead of how they write it.

But strong parent/school support is also key. "With her wide range of difficulties, Olivia finds it extremely tiring and difficult to attend, listen, learn and then process information. She then has to extracting meaning from this information" explains her mother.

"It is an exhausting way for anyone to learn. I'd love more people to know about it so I don't always have to explain myself, to explain her behaviour. She's doing the best that she can."

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