Sensory Processing Issues

Difficulty integrating information coming into the brain from the senses– movement, balance, sound, touch, taste, smell, sight, temperature — is common among individuals with prenatal alcohol exposure.

Sensory processing(also called sensory integration) refers to the way the individual’s nervous system receives signals from the senses and transforms turns them into motor and behavioral responses. Eating, moving, reading, listening, smiling, bathing, dressing, etc., all require successful completion of  processing sensory information; that is, appropriately integrating environmental signals into the body through the brain and the voluntary nervous system. That way, the individual can respond appropriately.

Sensory Processing Disorder(SPD), is a condition caused when the individual cannotorganize sensory signals into appropriate responses. In some individuals with SPD, certain sensations may overwhelm the nervous system; for example, a light touch on the arm may be experienced as a painful blow, or the taste of an apple may be experienced as bitter rather than sweet. Likewise, in some individuals with SPD, some sensations may be experienced with less intensity than normal, as when the person does not experience a stimulus which would normally cause pain as uncomfortable.

SPD is unique for each person affected. Some persons are sensitive in just one sense (for example, in hearing); others have difficulty processing signals from  multiple senses. In addition, the same person may both over-respond and under-respond, depending on the type of sensory information he or she has difficulty processing.

FASD is not just a central nervous condition. It also effects the peripheral nervous system. Those afflicted with FASD have sensory abnormalities… They may be over-sensitive or under-sensitive… They are less sensitive to cold or physical pain. They have a need for sensory stimulation resulting in inappropriate hugging and touching. Repetitive scratching, pulling hair out, and more severe kinds of self mutilation [often interpreted as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) or attention seeking] provides comfort, especially in times of stress, that others obtain from more normal sensory stimulation.

Barry Stanley, Canadian medical FASD consultant and parent of an FASD-affected child

Symptoms of SPD

There are many symptoms of SPD. Below are some common ones (taken from here). Notice the similarity with symptoms that are also characteristic of FASD.

  • Has unusual eating habits (strong preferences, eats at odd times, etc.)
  • Has great difficulty with transitions, be they major life changes or small everyday stuff (one activity to another, going from inside to outdoors, etc.)
  • Becomes engrossed in one single activity for a long time and seems to tune out everything else
  • Very high or very low energy level
  • Are resistant to change in daily life and surrounding environment
  • Bothered by clothes; certain materials, tags, seams
  • Very sensitive to pain, especially as compared to others
  • Dislikes the feeling of showers or getting splashed
  • Easily distracted by auditory or visual stimuli
  • Lethargic, hard to get going, appears “lazy” and unmotivated
  • Doesn’t seem to notice if hands or face are dirty
  • Is/was a late potty trainer (didn’t notice need to go) or has/had chronic bed wetting issues
  • Is a thrill seeker; loves fast and/or dangerous rides and sports
  • Great difficulty settling down for sleep
  • Gets disoriented and/or lost easily in stores, buildings, etc.
  • Difficulty concentrating on or watching a movie/TV show when there is background noise or distractions
  • Difficulty remembering or understanding what people are saying
  • Difficulty following directions if given two or three at one time
  • Cannot complete concentrated tasks if noises present
  • Talks too loud or too soft
  • Difficulty with handwriting; hard to read, writes slowly, gets wrist cramps
  • Is very emotional and sensitive, may also be prone to crying
  • Can’t seem to finish anything
  • Is seen as rigid, bossy, and controlling
  • Prefers solitary activities over group participation
  • Doesn’t always register or understand social cues and non verbal language
  • Has trouble relating to and socializing with peers and colleagues
  • Frequently gets angry or has moments of rage
  • Needs sameness and routines; needs to know what to expect
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Over- or under-sensitive to the sensations of hunger and thirst
  •  Irregular, inconsistent bowel, bladder and appetite sensations


“Students who are alcohol-affected often experience difficulties in processing the different sensory information they receive. For most individuals, the processing of sensory information is automatic. Most individuals can screen, filter, and selectively attend to different sensory information. However, children who are alcohol-affected often have difficulty with these processes. They may be over-responsive to some forms of sensory input and under-responsive to others. They may become overloaded by the sensory information they receive and, as a result, are unable to organize their behaviour”

Manitoba Education, Training and Youth, Towards Inclusion: Tapping Hidden Strengths: Planning for Students Who Are Alcohol-Affected 3.5).

SPD Treatment

Occupational therapy may be effective in developing a sensory integration behavior therapy plan to help a child with FASD with SPD. In particular, some children with FASD crave sensation of a specific type, and a sensory integration plan may suggest strategies that can be incorporated at home and at school to add extra sensory signals of that type into the day in order to fill the child’s need.

group of teens