Sensory Processing Disorder: How The Eight Senses Affect Behavior

Many of us have “sensory quirks,” such as cringing at the feeling of velvet on your skin or squinting at harsh fluorescent lights. While irritating, these quirks, for the most part, do not impair our day-to-day functioning and participation in society.

People with sensory processing disorder (S.P.D.), however, often struggle with detecting or interpreting sensory stimuli, which can manifest into motor, language, or behavior skill difficulties. Individuals with S.P.D. are affected every day, which can impede their ability to participate in ordinary activities, like using the restroom or going to a restaurant.

As you can imagine, individuals with S.P.D. are therefore at a greater risk to experience:

  • Social isolation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mental health disorder

Understanding The Eight Sensory Systems

Understanding our senses is the first step in learning how to navigate challenges that often accompany sensory processing disorder. While you’re probably familiar with the five senses of sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell, did you know that we actually have a total of eight sensory systems? These additional senses include balance, movement, and feeling. Keep reading to learn more about the eight senses and how they affect behavior.

1. The Auditory System (Sound)

The auditory system converts sounds into thoughts. When individuals process this sense in an atypical way, it means their ears and brain are not fully cooperating with one another. Individuals whose auditory system is affected by S.P.D. may have trouble with communication or paying attention. This can look like a variety of behaviors.

Signs of Auditory Processing Disorder:

  • Being easily startled by unexpected sounds
  • Difficulty focusing in busy or echoey environments
  • Taking longer to respond in oral communication
  • Getting easily distracted
  • Misunderstanding sarcasm or jokes
  • Anxiety in social situations

Need relief from auditory hypersensitivity? Using headphones or foam earplugs can help alleviate stress, especially if the headphones are playing soft, calm music. Auditory processing activities may also help. Create a calming auditory input by making a sensory sound tool. Simply fill a plastic bottle with uncooked rice and let the relaxation begin.

2. The Visual System (Sight)

Wearing glasses can enhance your eyesight, but they don’t necessarily force the eyes and brain to cooperate. Our visual system uses light to detect information through our eyes, and then our brain interprets that information. However, when someone has a sensory processing disorder, this visual process can become more complicated, regardless of their eyesight.

Symptoms of Visual Processing Disorder:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty holding eye contact
  • Frequently losing place while reading
  • Difficulty with visually stimulating activities like word searches or puzzles

If an individual with S.P.D. struggles with their visual system, they can engage in sensory integration techniques to develop their visual skills. Encouraging eye contact, frequent puzzle activities, and tracking skills (such as catching a thrown ball or identifying a series of shapes while jumping up and down) can be very beneficial. Sensory light is a great accommodation for someone who is hypersensitive to brightness. Want to learn more? Check out our article: Autism-friendly Lighting: Sensory Lights for Light Sensitivity.

3. The Olfactory System (Smell)

Have you ever smelled a specific food and it instantly triggered happiness or nostalgia? That’s because the olfactory system (sense of smell) is directly linked to our emotions, memory, and taste. When it comes to the detection of hazards or pheromones, our olfactory system plays a very important role in protecting us, too; however, individuals with sensory processing disorder may find smells overwhelming due to their extreme sensitivity to smells.

How does sensory processing disorder affect smell?

  • Hypersensitivity to Smells (over-responsive): Smells are overwhelming, can lead to meltdowns or serious distractions
  • Hyposensitivity to Smells (under-responsive): Smells are desired to the point of smelling almost everything, including inedible objects or other people

For people with olfactory dysfunction, incorporating sensory input exercises into their daily lives can prove beneficial. For example, if mealtime is an overwhelming olfactory event, then smelling a calming scent, such as lavender, right before dinner can enhance comfort and composure.

4. The Gustatory System (Taste)

Like our sense of smell, taste is directly linked to emotions and memories. The gustatory system is our sense of taste. Someone with S.P.D. may be a very picky eater, or an overly adventurous eater.

Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder Affecting Taste:

  • Avoiding foods with a certain texture, temperature, or consistency
  • Becoming extremely anxious when trying a new food
  • Craving strong flavors and extreme temperatures of food
  • Licking or chewing on inedible objects (writing utensils, shirt collars, etc.)

Feeding therapy, complete with a treatment plan, can help someone who is experiencing gustatory system difficulties. Also, try experimenting with different foods! Gradually introducing new scents, flavors, and textures can help expand their palate and reduce anxiety when new foods are brought to the table.

5. The Tactile System (Touch)

The tactile system is our sense of touch. This applies to all skin surfaces. Certain sensations can cause severe discomfort or anxiety for someone with S.P.D., significantly impacting their day.

Common signs of tactile defensiveness include refusal to:

  • Brush teeth
  • Clip nails
  • Get haircuts
  • Wear certain clothing items or materials
  • Hug or touch others

Sensory integration therapy and heavy work activities can be a valuable tool for someone who has difficulty with tactile stimulation. Activities like stirring the batter for a recipe or pulling a wagon can help individuals with S.P.D. develop appropriate responses to sensations. When it comes to personal hygiene, using different materials can be an effective modification. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding a different textured washcloth or a new type of toothbrush!

6. The Vestibular System (Balance)

Have you ever heard of the vestibular system? It may sound like a new term, but your body’s always putting it to work! Vestibular input is the sensation of any change in direction, position, or movement of the head. The vestibular system allows us to move with balance and control, which protects our safety when engaging in everyday activities. This ability to control movements is something individuals with S.P.D. may find challenging.

7 Signs of Vestibular Sensory Processing Disorder:

  1. Clumsiness
  2. Rocking back and forth
  3. Frequent motion sickness
  4. Pacing
  5. Head banging
  6. Resistance to move
  7. Being seemingly unaware of physical danger in activities

Movement exercises can be constructive incorporations for someone who finds vestibular function or balance challenging. They can also be really fun—like swimming, bike riding, and jumping rope!

7. The Proprioceptive System (Movement)

When you lift your legs to walk up the stairs, you probably don’t think twice about how much force you’re using or where the stairs are in relation to the bottom of your foot. This is typically a natural movement that doesn’t take much thought, because your proprioceptive system is working at full throttle without you even realizing it. This sensory system tells your mind where all of your body parts are located, allowing you to subconsciously be aware of where your body begins, and where it ends.

Symptoms of Proprioception Disorder:

  • Difficulty isolating body movements
  • Misjudgment on amount of force needed to lift objects
  • Frequent kicking when sitting or stomping while walking
  • Playing too rough with others

Adequate proprioceptive processing is important for people building their sense of self. Some activities that can help with body awareness include squeezing something in your hand or pushing something with your entire body. You can even integrate sensory therapy into chores—a win-win for parents! Shoveling snow, carrying laundry, and raking leaves are all great body awareness activities for the proprioceptive system.

8. The Interoceptive System (Feeling)

If your body appropriately tells you when you’re tired, hungry, or cold, that means your interoceptive system is working properly. However, individuals with S.P.D. may have difficulties understanding these feelings.

Examples of Interoceptive Sensory Processing Disorder:

  • A poor understanding of when to eat or drink
  • Struggling to grasp the feelings of pain or temperature
  • Not knowing when to use the restroom
  • Not understanding basic emotions

Displaying a calendar or schedule on a wall in your home is a simple tool for helping individuals with interoceptive sensory processing disorder. For example, maintaining a regular meal and snack time can help individuals with S.P.D. get the proper amount of nourishment even if their hunger cues are not present. When toileting urges are blocked, having a calendar with scheduled bathroom breaks can help with interoceptive dysfunction as well.

Feel Comfortable at Covey

At Covey, we know that everyone experiences the world differently. And as a non-profit organization that provides services for adults with disabilities, we understand that some people need adaptations to feel more comfortable.

No two clients are the same. That’s why we believe in providing customized care for each individual with our respite care services. Whether it’s long-term or short-term, our knowledgeable, compassionate staff are here to assist every client’s needs. Our services include behavioral management, personal care assistance, and more!

In addition to respite care, Covey also offers educational skill building that allows individuals with disabilities to develop their daily skills, build confidence, and be more engaged with the community. Our practical events such as gardening, cooking, and writing empower individuals to live with greater independence and seek out new opportunities for growth.

We are always excited to meet new clients! For more information on how Covey can help contact us at!