Understanding Sensory Processing Disorders

Child Life Specialist Allyson Halverson and Erin Rovelli, RN serve patients at the Children’s Emergency Room at Inova Loudoun Hospital – Loudoun County’s only emergency facility solely dedicated to caring for children and adolescents. It is also the first and only sensory-friendly ER in the region.  Kacie Demetros is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist at Inova Loudoun Hospital’s Outpatient Specialty Rehabilitation Center.

smiling child sitting at a table with paper and crayonsWhat are sensory processing disorders?

Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. It begins in the early stages of pregnancy and continues throughout life.

When we interact with our surrounding environment, thousands of sensory receptors throughout the body relay information to the brain for further interpretation. Once the brain evaluates the received information, it filters out “unimportant” information and then formulates a perception, behavior and/or motor response. An adaptive response is a purposeful response to a sensory experience.

How do people experience sensory input?

For example, stop and think about all of the sensory stimulation you’re currently receiving at this moment.  If you’re sitting at a computer reading this article, you’re receiving information from your muscles and joints to sustain an upright seated position in your chair.  You’re receiving information from your tactile – or touch – system from the clothing that is touching your skin.  Maybe you’re receiving auditory stimulation by listening to background music or a conversation happening nearby – or, the sound of your mouse as you click and scroll through this article.  Think about all of the sensations you were not consciously thinking about until just now.  With all of this sensory stimulation, you’re still able to sustain attention to the information you’re reading.  This is sensory processing.

Sometimes, a child’s nervous system does not react or cannot organize the sensory information properly to create an appropriate perception, motor response or behavior.  This is known as a sensory processing disorder (SPD).  SPDs are different from sensory preferences; you may not like melon because of its texture, or to feel tags on your clothing.  However, these sensory preferences most likely do not impact participation in your daily routines.  SPDs do interfere with functions of daily living.

Preliminary research has suggested genetic factors, prenatal and birth complications, and environmental factors are all contributing factors to a SPD diagnosis.

What are the Symptoms of SPD?

SPD can often interfere with functions of daily living.  Children with SPD typically have difficulty with motor coordination, attention, learning, regulating emotions, social interaction, family relationships, and self-confidence.  A checklist of symptoms can be found at Symptoms Checklist | STAR Institute.

In some cases, children with SPD may have other medical diagnoses that are playing an active role in the child’s social/emotional development or learning ability.

Concerned Parents: What Should You Do?

If you suspect your child may have a SPD, you should contact your pediatrician to discuss your concerns.  Your pediatrician may refer you to an Occupational Therapist (OT) who will work with your child to help them accurately detect, regulate, and interpret sensations – stimulating appropriate motor and behavioral responses.

At Inova Loudoun Hospital’s Outpatient Specialty Rehabilitation Center, skilled OTs will assess your child’s response to sensory stimulation through a parent interview, clinical observations, standardized assessments, and a sensory profile.  The OT will then work with both the parent and the child to design the appropriate treatment plan.

It is important to note that you must first have a diagnosis and prescription from your family physician or pediatrician before visiting an OT.

Children’s Emergency Room at Inova Loudoun Hospital: We’re Sensory-Friendly!

Visiting an emergency room is often challenging for kids, but for those with a SPD we know that the experience can be particularly difficult. That’s why the Children’s Emergency Room at Inova Loudoun Hospital developed a sensory-friendly program.

To help reduce sensory problems for our kids and their families, our team has been specially trained and we’ve implemented new protocols and physical modifications to our department. Rooms are equipped with dimmed lighting and soft music; unnecessary medical equipment can be removed from the child’s sight; and sensory-friendly items like weighted blankets, fidget toys, and story boards are readily available for families.

In an effort to better communicate with your child, we ask that parents/guardians complete a parental intake form at check-in outlining the child’s preferred communication style, motivators, stressors, and sensory challenges. If your child is an existing patient of the Inova and has special sensory needs, you can complete the Online Parental Intake Form in advance. Please allow one week for your child’s information to be uploaded into our system.  We also ask that you update this form yearly as your child grows.



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