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 Foter.com / 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. spdfoundation.net (based in America, but has lots of useful general information)
  2. http://www.hsperson.com/pages/2Feb09.htm (Elaine Aron’s explanation of the difference between High Sensitivity & SPD)
  3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-development/201107/sensory-processing-disorder (Sensory Processing Disorder – The Deluge of Sensory Processing Disorder in Schools by Maureen D Healey)
  4. https://eatingoffplastic.wordpress.com/2014/07/23/highly-sensitive-person-vs-sensory-processing-disorder/ (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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About Amanda van Mulligen

Mother, writer, author, blogger. I was born in Britain but live in the Netherlands. I have three Dutch sons and a Dutch husband and I blog about Turning Dutch and raising highly sensitive children.
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