Sensory Processing Disorder vs ADD

In our last two blogs, we talked about how weaknesses in auditory processing and reflex integration can look like attention deficit.  In this article, we talk about the impact of sensory processing on attention.

Sensory processing refers to how our brain receives information from the senses of the body and processes it.  The brain then has to decide how to respond and then commands the body to respond appropriately.  For most individuals, this is done without issue.  However, someone who has difficulty processing this information and responding appropriately is said to have a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Most of us are aware of the five senses:  sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing.  However, there are two other very important senses:  Vestibular and Proprioceptive.

The Vestibular sense is housed in the inner ear.  It helps us to make sense of where our body is positioned in space.  It allows us to make changes in our posture and balance.  It detects head acceleration, head position, and the pull of gravity.  (Most older people have a poor vestibular system.)

The Proprioceptive system allows our body to judge the space around us, know where we are in relation to that space, and know where our body parts are and what they are doing.   It is housed in the receptors in the joints, muscles, and ligaments.  It tells us how much pressure and force is needed to do something, and is stimulated by heavy work, pulling, pushing, carrying, jumping, hugging, etc.   Without movement affecting the muscles and joints, the receptors go to sleep.

Sensory processing can be so difficult to explain.  Some students can be overstimulated by the sensory information, while others can be understimulated.  Students can vary in how they respond.  Some will act in accordance and others will try to counteract their response.

For example, a student who is overstimulated becomes overloaded by the sensory input, and if they are acting in accordance, they will become distractible, hyperactive, or silly.  But if they try to counteract the stimulation, they might become avoidant, or rigid or ritualistic, or resistant to change.

If understimulated, the student may respond in accordance and appear bored, tired, or apathetic.  Whereas, the student who is trying to counteract this understimulation might try to get more sensory input by seeking the sensations, and seem active, fidgety, and excitable.

As my friend, Denise, says, “If you have met one kid with Sensory Processing Disorder, you have met one kid with Sensory Processing Disorder.”

Here is a very short checklist of sensory symptoms.  (A long one can be found at

  • Responds negatively to loud or unexpected noises
  • Holds head upright even when bending over or  leaning (i.e. Maintains a rigid position/posture during activity)
  • Seeks to make noise for “noise’s sake”
  •  Rocks/twirls/bounces frequently
  • Seeks hugs or other deep pressure
  • Avoids getting messy
  • Has difficulty standing close to other people
  • Appears sensitive to changes in lighting
  • Reacts emotionally or aggressively to touch
  • Exerts too much or not enough pressure when handling objects
  • Gags easily with certain food textures
  • Touches people or objects to the point of irritating others


  • Dislikes playground equipment or moving toys
  • Seeks all kinds of movement
  • Takes movement or climbing risks that compromise personal safety
  • Appears lethargic (no energy, sluggish)
  • Is sensitive to certain fabrics or clothing
  • Limits self to particular foods or food temperatures
  • Prefers long sleeved clothing when it’s warm or short sleeves when it is cold
  • Displays unusual need for touching certain toys,  surfaces or textures
  • Insists on removing shoes as soon as possible, or insists on leaving shoes on
  • Decreased awareness or response to pain or temperature
  • Chews, licks, or mouths non-food objects


Sensory Processing Disorder is something we screen for during our evaluation.  Learning Enhancement Centers has many strategies that can be used to help a student with SPD.  However, there are times when we feel that the student should work with an Occupational Therapist (OT) first.  Once again, this is why an evaluation is so important to make sure that the cause of the problem is being addressed, not just the symptom.