Sensory Processing Disorder or Highly Sensitive?

A common question in the Happy Sensitive Kids community is whether a child is highly sensitive or whether there is a sensory processing disorder. The two are not the same – but there is lots of confusion about the differences. Luckily, Naturally HSP is on hand to shed some light.*

Sensory Processing Disorder or Highly Sensitive?

Whether a child is Highly Sensitive or has Sensory Processing Disorder is a question that comes up frequently and confounds many. There can be similarities in the way a Highly Sensitive Child and one with Sensory Processing Disorder responds to sensory stimulation which explains the confusion. There is an important difference however, as one, High Sensitivity, is a normal temperament variation, whereas the other, Sensory Processing Disorder, is a neurological condition.


Arteries of the brain

Photo credit: adrigu via / CC BY

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), formerly known as ‘Sensory Integration Dysfunction’, refers to the condition where sensory signals don’t get organised into appropriate responses. i.e. there is a dysfunction in the actual processing of the brain. In a child with SPD, certain sensory information doesn’t reach the appropriate parts of the brain, preventing them from interpreting it correctly. This has been likened to a neurological ‘traffic jam’, (Jean Ayres) resulting in the child having difficulties performing everyday tasks, potentially resulting in motor clumsiness, behavioural problems, anxiety, depression, and problems at school.

With Sensory Processing Disorder the child may be over or under- responding to sensation. One that is over-responding may find clothing, physical contact, light, sound, food or other sensory input unbearable. One that is under-responding may show little or no reaction to stimulation including pain or extremes in temperature. These responses, or lack of responses, can present a real problem in day to day life. This is illustrated perfectly by Maureen Healey’s example of a 7 year old child who was unable to go outside at any time of the year without her sunglasses or she would scream. Her light sensitivity was acute, impacting on her daily life as opposed to simply being a preference.

High Sensitivity, on the other hand is not a disorder, being found in approximately 15-20% of humans and in similar ratios in most other species, indicating that it is a normal temperament variation that has evolved for a reason. (Elaine Aron)

In a Highly Sensitive Child, although they may have strong likes and dislikes with regards to sensory stimulation (see previous blog on ‘Does your child have Gremlins in their socks’?), most tantrums usually come when they are overstimulated or tired. The same stimulus may not elicit a strong response at other times, for instance when they are well-rested. The brains of Highly Sensitive Children are still wired ‘normally’ with sensory signals getting organised into appropriate, albeit at times heightened, responses. As Highly Sensitive Children have heightened sensory sensitivities and are taking in more information all of the time, (compared to non-Highly Sensitive Children) they can become overwhelmed and appear not to cope. The resulting tantrum can easily be confused with the ‘not coping’ behaviour of a child with Sensory Processing Disorder, as the behaviour often appears the same.

Another difference between children with Sensory Processing Disorder and Highly Sensitive Children, is that those with SPD tend to have problems with balance, motor control, or body-spatial awareness, whereas those with High Sensitivity don’t. It is also common for children with SPD to have other challenges, such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

Highly Sensitive Children need appropriate environments in order to thrive, but the things they need are simple and are more to do with understanding and giving them the space to retreat to when things become overwhelming (for instance, providing a Quiet Corner at home or in the classroom, where they can relax). With guidance, HSCs can recognise their sensitivity as a strength and use it to successfully navigate their worlds. For children with SPD, the goal for Occupational Therapists is to help them handle their disorganised sensory input into more organised and healthier responses so they can lead full lives (Maureen Healey).

If you’re still confused about whether your child is Highly Sensitive or has Sensory Processing Disorder, here are some useful links that may help. Bear in mind that they may have both, just like Kelly Dillon, the author of the last blog on the list!

And if you’re going down the route of having your child diagnosed by a professional, make sure you read Elaine Aron’s recommendation to choose someone that has experience of both High Sensitivity and Sensory Processing Disorder (number 2 on the list below).

  1. (based in America, but has lots of useful general information)
  2. (Elaine Aron’s explanation of the difference between High Sensitivity & SPD)
  3. (Sensory Processing Disorder – The Deluge of Sensory Processing Disorder in Schools by Maureen D Healey)
  4. (Eating Off Plastic – An illustrated blog about neurological misfortunes and some other things by Kelly Dillon)

Agree, disagree or just plain confused? Please leave us a comment, we’d love to hear your thoughts!

*This post has been republished with permission from Naturally HSP, a site run by two mothers of highly sensitive children, Nicole Gabriel and coach of highly sensitive women, Nina Capaccio. 

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Encourage a Child to Explore The World and Reduce Their Overwhelm

Highly sensitive children are not only very aware of their environment, but also often overwhelmed by it. This guest post features an activity that is a fun way to help your child make sense of the world around them and open a discussion on things they see around them.

Encourage a Child to Explore The World & Reduce Their Overwhelm–———

Preschoolers are often very curious about the world around them, and understanding the world is a great way to make it less overwhelming!

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HSK Update: Moving House & Guest Posts

It’s been quieter than usual on the Happy Sensitive Kids blog during the last few weeks and it will continue to be so for a couple of months. In just less than a month we get the keys to our new house and you know what they say about stress and moving? Well, it’s all true and with a household of highly sensitives our home is a tense and excited one at the moment.

HSK Update: Moving House & Guest PostsMy focus at the moment is on helping my three children say their goodbyes properly and get used to the idea of a new home, school and well, life!

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Highly Sensitive Children and Animals: A Book Giveaway

Highly sensitive children (HSC) often connect deeply with animals. There are a number of reasons for this and a HSC can benefit greatly from life with a beloved pet (such as anxiety reduction to name but one important benefit).

Highly Sensitive Children and Animals_ A Book GiveawayMy sons have been begging for a pet of their own for years but we just don’t have the physical space (nor have I had the time to care for yet another living creature). Soon that will change.

During the summer we are moving house. We are swapping town life for village life. We are trading a postage stamp garden for the kind of outdoor space we have long dreamed of. Space will no longer be a restriction. So the boys are on a promise of least a cat (a kitten as far as they are concerned) and maybe a rabbit or two.

And I am absolutely sure that the additions to our family will have a huge positive affect on my three HSCs.

The power an animal can have on a HSC is a theme that runs through the latest My Quiet Adventures’ book: Aiden Finds a Way. This beautiful new book features Aiden making friends with a Dalmatian puppy and the result is heartwarming.

In honour of the special relationship that our HSCs have with animals and the release of the second in the My Quiet Adventures series of books for our sensitive children I am delighted to host a giveaway.

There are three amazing sets to win.

A copy of Aiden Finds a Way accompanied by this wonderful handcrafted puppy.

Puppy & Aiden Finds a Way Book Giveaway

Secondly there is a copy of the book with a set of related postcards and stickers.

Aiden Finds a Way Book, Postcards & Stickers Giveaway And last but not least a copy of the book.

Aiden Finds a Way Book Giveaway

All you have to do to win one of these prizes is share how animals (have) play(ed) a role in your HSCs life. Share an anecdote about your HSCs reaction to an animal. Tell about the relationship your HSC has with a pet. Anything animal related at all! You can share a picture or use words – or use any other creative means you wish.

To enter leave a comment on this post or send me your entry by email at

The giveaway will close on June 30th and the winners will be notified shortly after. Please ensure you communicate a way to contact you.


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Three Steps to Help You Parent Better as a Highly Sensitive Person

If you are a highly sensitive person parenting a highly sensitive child (HSC) then some days you find that your role is harder than others. You are not alone. Parenting is a tough role but doing it whilst trying to keep your own bucket from overflowing makes it even harder. Here are three steps you can take to help yourself be a better parent for your HSC.

Three Steps to Help You Parent Better as a Highly Sensitive Person

1. Understand your own sensitivities

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Book Review: You’ll Always Be Enough

Does your highly sensitive child wish they weren’t highly sensitive? Then ‘You’ll Always Be Enough’ by Laura Kuehl is a book worth having on your family bookshelf.

It’s a struggle many of us parents of highly sensitive children (HSCs) have – trying to help our children see the positives of being highly sensitive, and explaining why some children are and some are not.

You'll Always Be Enough Book review by Happy Sensitive Kids

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It’s Not Always Easy Being the Parent of a Highly Sensitive Child

Being the parent of a highly sensitive child (HSC) can be exhausting. You have to be one step ahead, constantly thinking about events coming up, planning days so as to avoid sensory overload for your child, learning what to say no to.

It's Not Always Easy Being the Parent of a Highly Sensitive ChildMy eldest HSC is at his best when there’s a routine to stick to and things are predictable. That means not letting him stay up later to celebrate an uncle’s birthday twenty kilometers from home – and shielding him from the criticism that generates.

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