Sensory processing disorders (SPD) are medical disorders that produce sensitivities and reactions to stimuli to the senses. Our senses give us much of the information about our environments, and there may be changes in those who experience SPD in how the brain interprets this environmental sensory information. SPD is often co-morbid or presents with other disorders, such as autism spectrum disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. SPD can be seen as symptoms of other disorders, but new insights seem to show that SPD may be more than just symptoms belonging to other disorders and could be a spectrum on its own.

Our bodies and brains use specialized systems to register all the different sensory information in our environment and piece it together to build a complete picture of what is going on around us, with our bodies, within our bodies, where we are, and what time of day it is. Sensory processing shapes our experiences in the world and impacts our feelings. Star Institute

SPD is highly prevalent in children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. It can present as sensitivities to sounds, sights, interactions, and a general sense of overwhelm in situations with too many stimuli. This can impact all senses; tactile, perceptive, taste, texture, and touch can all be minefields for those who experience sensory processing disorders. Things that may seem small and insignificant to someone without a sensory disorder can be excruciating for those who live with this challenging experience.

Difficulties could show up as preferring a specific type of clothing because of its soft feel or tagless collar; it could show up as a preference for certain foods due to the mouthfeel of the food as it is being chewed rather than the taste of the food itself. Other SPD issues could be a sensitivity or insensitivity to pain, no perception of personal space, discomfort or displeasure at being touched, behavioral outbursts, and many more difficulties. Parenting a child on the autism spectrum with an SPD can change how the family does even the most minor tasks, such as going to the grocery store (due to people, sights, or sounds) or doing chores (due to smells and touch issues).

Parenting a child with an autism diagnosis who experiences SPD presents many challenges. Children may not understand or have the language to communicate the difficulty or issue with the world around them. As parents of children with autism, being sensitive to learning about preferences and building a vocabulary around these things can be essential. One way to support a child who deals with sensory processing disorders is to teach them that their preferences matter and are valuable to communicate with others. If your child is very young, they may not be able to do this for themselves, but seeing you advocate for them respectfully and kindly will empower them to speak up for themselves as they grow. If your child cannot communicate for themselves, making their preferences known can mean a world of difference for their experience in situations where you may not be there to advocate for them in real-time.

No matter the sensory processing issue that your child may experience, there are small ways that you can support your child as they learn about themselves and their world. Sometimes parents may need support as they go on the journey of learning about their children’s experiences in the world. Modeling healthy communication for yourself and others is essential to having a healthy and happy life. This may mean finding a support group in your area for parents of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders or taking the time you need as a parent to adjust to life as it changes. Whatever you may need, remember that your needs are valid and worth advocating for as well.

Dr. Jessica Myszak has had over 10 years of experience performing psychological evaluations with children and adults. She offers both in-person and telehealth evaluations. In addition to seeing clients on the Chicago North Shore, she is able to work with families who reside in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin! If you are interested in learning more about potentially working with her, you can visit her website here or email her here to get the process started.


Star Institute: Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder