Sensory processing disorder

Our senses play a huge role in how we navigate the world around us. Occupational therapist CoCo Chui looks at how a commonly undiagnosed condition can affect a child’s development.

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses (touch, taste, hearing, sight, smell and movement) and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioural responses. We can be over-responsive or under-responsive to these senses.

As a paediatric occupational therapist working with toddlers, I see many children with undiagnosed SPD. According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, one in 20 children has some sort of SPD. Without treatment, a toddler with SPD can experience challenges when performing everyday tasks.

Firstly, SPD can affect gross motor skills. Toddlers with SPD can struggle to register movement or know where their body is in space. For example, a child with SPD may struggle with personal space awareness.

Secondly, it can affect a child’s eating. Toddlers with SPD can appear to be picky eaters. Those who are over-responsive to taste can find mundane tastes and textures overwhelming, and those who are under-responsive may like extreme tastes, such as spices, but dislike bland flavours.

Thirdly, SPD affects learning. For example, toddlers who are over-responsive to sensory input may have difficulty focussing because they have difficulty filtering out external noise and visual senses. They may also be over-responsive to touch and get distracted by rough clothing. Toddlers who are under-responsive to sensory input may have difficulty processing what the teacher has said.

Finally, SPD affects a child’s social skills. If a child is over-responsive to sensory input, she may find the playground too overwhelming and tend to hide in quiet places. If she is under-responsive to sensory input, she may prefer big loud voices and forceful movements, which may scare other children away. Toddlers with SPD can easily have their senses overloaded because they can’t appropriately register the world around them. As a result, they have a tendency to have attachment problems and emotional meltdowns.


If any of the above sounds familiar and you have noticed that your child is having difficulty with eating, regulating his emotions, developing appropriate physical coordination or social skills, he may need help from an occupational therapist. For more information, check out


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