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Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

About 5%-16% of the population has some form of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD Australia n.d. and STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder n.d.).

It is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses.

Sensory Processing Disorder has a spectrum. SPD may affect one sense, or it may affect multiple senses. People can be over-responsive (hypersensitive) or under-responsive (hyposensitive) to the things they have difficulties with. Under-responsiveness may lead to injury because pain receptors are not engaged.

SPD has long been associated with autism. Recently it was found that SPD is a stand-alone disorder, and that people can have SPD and not autism, and vice versa. They can also have SPD and autism.

People who have unusual sensory processing patterns live a more intense version of life; they experience things more acutely or more deeply (Dunn 2008).

SPD Network (n.d.) lists eight sensory systems that can be affected with SPD:

  1. Sight or vision
  2. Smell or olfaction
  3. Taste or gustation
  4. Hearing or audition
  5. Touch or somatosensory
  6. Vestibular (vestibular system explains the perception of our body in relation to gravity, movement and balance)
  7. Proprioception (proprioception is a sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort to move them)
  8. Interoception (internal body senses like hunger, thirst, heartbeat, etc).

Senses are engaged by the surrounding environment in the categories explained above. That means that our spaces are directly related to our senses. Considering sensory design may change how we create comfort and support regulation of sensory inputs. How our body responds to these sensory stimulations is important when we design. For example, a busy, very colourful interior may result in a comfortable environment for some, while it can also be overwhelming and uncomfortable for others. All this depends on how one’s individual body self regulates. People with sensory processing disorder may be bothered by visual senses and they may prefer: low lights; keeping colour intensity down; and minimal design. Others may need stimulation. They may take comfort in seeking plenty of natural light, and having many forms, texture and / or paintings on walls.

Here are more examples of common responses (Dunn 2008, p.28):

Challenging – being picky about fabrics and labels on skin, avoiding messy hands, avoiding being close to others.
Pleasant – fiddling with objects in your hands, stroking textiles or clothing, pet contact

Body Position:
Challenging – tripping frequently, holding your head in your hands at the table
Pleasant – wrapping your legs or arms around chairs

Challenging – getting dizzy easily, getting car sick
Pleasant – getting up often during work, high-activity sports

Challenging – being a picky eater and not willing to try new foods
Pleasant – chewing continuously, trying new foods, biting down on crunchy foods

Challenging – turning on a few lights, keeping shades down, limiting colour and tones
Pleasant – seeking lots of lights, having many items on tables and walls.

Challenging – wearing earplugs to reduce sounds, noticing and describing sounds in great detail
Pleasant – having music on continuously, singing or humming, making noises with objects

Challenging – moving away from areas with scents
Pleasant – experimenting with perfumes

The brain processing and self-regulating functions intersect with each other to create four basic ways that people respond to sensory experiences. Winnie Dunn describes these as Seekers, Bystanders, Avoiders and Sensors.

Seekers have high brain thresholds and an active self-regulating strategy. They love sensation and want more of it. Sight seekers may have artwork, objects, furniture and textures around them. They may like to spread their work out so they can see it rather than filing it away.

Bystanders have high brain thresholds and a passive self-regulating strategy. Bystanders need more sensory information than others so they can be engaged.

Avoiders have low brain thresholds and active self-regulating strategy. Avoiders may try to reduce the amount of sensory information around them. Avoiders may find a space with minimal sensory information for comfort. They notice what is going on around them and therefore can be easily distracted.

Sensors have low brain thresholds and a passive self-regulating strategy. Sensors notice what is going on around them and therefore can be easily distracted. Sensors are very detail oriented and like to have control over their environment. They like predictability. (Dunn 2008, p.28)

Physical activities may help a person with SPD to maintain focus.

We hypothesize, that designing spaces in the workplace and in education in response to human sensory profiles will lead to better learning and working conditions for those with SPD.


Dunn, W 2008, Living Sensationally Understanding Your Senses, 1st edn, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia.

SPD Australia n.d., What is SPD?, SPD Australia, viewed 6 June 2019, <>.

STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder n.d., Latest Research Findings, STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder, viewed 6 June 2019, < >.

SPD Network n.d., Defining, SPD Network, viewed 6 June 2016, <>.