Are Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety in Children Related?

Photo of young Caucasian blond boy wearing a yellow hoodie eating a sandwich in his right hand and holding a glass of water with his left hand. Photo could represent him having difficulty eating or with his appetite due to sensory processing disorder and as a result needing anxiety treatment for kids in Illinois or Florida.

Parents of children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) have asked me if there’s a connection between SPD and anxiety. Does one cause the other? Or is anxiety mostly a symptom of SPD?

In this article, I’ll break it all down for you so you gain a clearer understanding of what it means to have SPD as well as how anxiety can show up.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information from the senses.

It affects how people process sensory information, including sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch and movement. SPD can range from mild to severe.

Children with SPD can experience extreme discomfort when exposed to sensory stimuli that most people don’t even notice. It can also make it difficult for them to understand what other people are saying.

Focusing on any one thing for very long is challenging for children with SPD, for example, reading an entire book or watching a movie. This is because all the sensory input going on around them completely overwhelms their brain.

Each child, however, is unique and SPD will show up differently depending on sensory sensitivities. Your child may have trouble with things like:

  • Hearing sounds or concentrating on sounds in loud places
  • Feeling textures, like those of clothes or utensils
  • Motor skills such as handwriting, cutting with scissors, and riding a bike
  • Being aware of pain, temperature, or other physical sensations
  • Using their senses to guide their behavior
  • Difficulty processing visual information

The prevalence of kids with Sensory Processing Disorder in the United States is estimated to be between 5-15% of children. This means that 1 out of every 20 kids has been diagnosed with SPD. There are likely many more who have not been diagnosed at all. The condition affects boys slightly more than girls, with an average ratio of 1:1.3.

It’s important to note that SPD is a developmental disorder and:

  • NOT a sign of mental illness or ADHD
  • NOT a disease, but a condition
  • NOT caused by abuse, neglect, or trauma

The exact causes of SPD are not known yet. Researchers believe it’s genetic however, and have identified certain genes that may be linked to SPD.

Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder

SPD is usually diagnosed when a child has a combination of sensory issues, such as:

  • Overly sensitive to touch, sound, taste, smell; and/or
  • Unusually intense reactions to specific stimuli; for example, the feeling of “pins and needles” when sitting with crossed legs or eating certain foods

SPD isn’t just about sensory sensitivity, however. It also includes other symptoms like attention problems (which can make learning more difficult) and motor coordination issues.

It’s important to understand that there are many different kinds of sensory processing disorders and they manifest themselves in a number of ways. Some children might be hypersensitive to light or sound. Others might be hyposensitive (they don’t notice things like pain or temperature changes as easily). Kids can also struggle with spatial relations (this can lead them into dangerous situations).

All these symptoms make their daily lives more stressful than necessary.

How is Sensory Processing Disorder Diagnosed?

Unfortunately, children with Sensory Processing Disorder are often misdiagnosed because it can mimic other disorders such as ADHD or learning disabilities.

The first step in getting a diagnosis is to see your pediatrician or family doctor. They may refer you to a specialist. An occupational therapist or psychologist can help diagnose the condition and recommend ways to manage it.

SPD isn’t something that’s easily diagnosed by just one doctor’s visit. It takes time and several evaluations before it can be confirmed as a true case of SPD. During these visits, health professionals will ask questions about how your child behaves at home and at school. They will also observe how your child interacts with others and responds to various situations.

Known Treatments for Sensory Processing Disorder

Although there’s no cure for SPD, there are treatment options that can help manage symptoms and make life easier for kids and teens who have it.

Here is a summary of treatments options for SPD:

  • Occupational therapy (OT): This type of therapy helps kids learn how to cope with their sensory sensitivity by doing things like playing games that teach them how to block out background noise. Occupational Therapy can also help adjust their expectations about what things should feel like in different situations.
  • Aromatherapy: Essential oils may be used in conjunction with other therapies to reduce anxiety and improve mood.
  • Neurofeedback: A form of biofeedback that uses sensors on the surface of the scalp to monitor brain activity and provide real-time feedback about what’s happening inside your child’s head. This helps patients learn how to modify their own brain waves through repetition, which can be helpful when dealing with sensory overload or under-sensitivity issues.
  • Sensory integration therapy: This type of therapy uses various approaches—including play—to help kids learn how to process sensory input more effectively. For example, if your child has trouble tolerating light touch on his head but enjoys playing under blankets, you might try having him wear a weighted hat while sitting under a blanket on top of his head.

Parenting Strategies for Kids and Teens with Sensory Processing Disorder

In addition to treatment options, there are also plenty of parenting strategies you can use to help your child with SPD.

Here are some examples of parenting strategies for Sensory Processing Disorder

  • Give your child choices

Children with SPD often have trouble processing multiple stimuli at once. They can get overwhelmed by their environment if they don’t have the ability to control what’s going on around them.

For example: If your child is sensitive to loud noises, give them the option of wearing earbuds so they can listen to music at a lower volume than everyone else in the room. If your child hates wearing socks, offer them ankle-high shoes instead of sneakers or boots. And if your child dislikes hugs or kisses because they feel too close or too warm, offer high fives or fist bumps instead of hugs.

  • Allow your child to pick out their clothes the night before so they don’t have to choose while they’re already stressed out.
  • Have breakfast ready before you wake them up so they can eat before heading out the door.
  • Set up organized areas at home or in their room so they can transition from one activity (e.g., doing a craft) into another more easily (e.g., doing homework).
  • Help them learn how to calm themselves down if they’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed.
  • Try not to make loud noises around them. If possible, try to keep background noise low. This will help them focus better on their surroundings and keep their minds clear of distractions.
  • Be patient and understanding. If they seem frustrated by something you ask them to do, give them time to think about it before asking again.
  • If your child seems distressed by certain textures or smells, try not to overreact when they show discomfort. Instead of pulling the item away immediately, allow them stay near it until they’re ready to move away themselves. Your goal should be for them to learn how to manage their discomfort without getting overwhelmed by it— even if this means taking baby steps.
  • Don’t compare your child’s behavior with those around them. Instead, focus on their strengths and resources.
  • Be mindful of your own reactions when things don’t go as smoothly as planned. And always remind them of how much they’re loved.

The Connection Between Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety

Again, Sensory Processing Disorder is NOT a form of Anxiety nor is it a mental health disorder. Sensory Processing Disorder and anxiety are two different disorders with their own symptoms.

That said, the realities of living with Sensory Processing Disorder can make it difficult for children socially, emotionally, mentally, and physically. Understandably, the stress of having sensory challenges can certainly lead to both frustration and anxiety.

The good news is that anxiety is highly treatable. Skills can be taught to help reduce your child’s anxiety so that more of your child’s strengths, resilience and confidence emerge.

Begin Online Therapy for Kids and Teens with Anxiety in Illinois and now Florida.

Photo of mother and daughter sitting together at a desk with an open lap top in front of them. Photo could represent an online therapy session with their solution focused brief therapist in Illinois.If your child or teen is struggling with anxiety, including panic attacks, there is hope! Anxiety is highly treatable and online anxiety treatment at Briefly Counseling can help.

Using Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, I help kids and teens reduce their anxiety and build resilience so they can become a happier, more confident version of themselves.

And kids love being able to receive counseling from the comfort and privacy of their own home. Studies have consistently proven that online therapy delivers equal results to in-office counseling.

As an experienced and caring therapist, I love providing counseling for anxiety. To start your child’s counseling journey, call me at 224-236-2296 or email to schedule a FREE 20-minute consultation.

Helena Madsen, MA, LCPC is the founder of Briefly Counseling. I specialize in providing online short-term anxiety treatment for kids and teens ages 7 – 18 as well as Christian counseling.

Whether you’re on the North Shore, in Naperville, Chicago, Champaign, Barrington, Libertyville, Glenview, or downstate Illinois, I can help.

And effective 2024, I am now licensed in Florida! For parents in Jacksonville, Pensacola, Destin, Crestview, Coral Gables, Weston, Parkland, Naples, Marco Island, and Pinecrest, I have immediate openings.

Schedule your appointment or consultation today. I look forward to working with your child to quickly and effectively help them in activating their strengths, resources, and resilience, in order to live with confidence and hope.