Lea Dartenne; Madlena Loffler; Julia ZIpfel; and Laura Matalla

Definitions of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Sensitivity or also called “High Sensitivity” is not a psychological disorder or something that needs to be fixed. These umbrella terms  cover a range of issues that some biologists assert affect 20% of the population.

In her book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ (Aron, 2013), Aron writes about the level of arousal of the nervous system. The Highly Sensitive Person needs an intermediate level of arousal in order to learn in the best way possible. This means they should neither be too bored nor too stimulated. As every individual is different, this level of arousal depends on how much stimulation someone can take in, how much someone is affected by a specific situation – being in the same situation, under the same stimulation.

Dr. Elaine Aron wrote many books about this topic and describes a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) as “empathic, smart, intuitive, creative, careful” and easily overwhelmed by “large quantities of input arriving at once” (Aron, 2002). The whole body is more sensitive to any information that comes in and the highly sensitive person can process and reflect more on that information than others.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a “type of hypersensitivity to different types of sensory stimuli” (Macintyre, 2014) and can be defined as a “condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses” (S. Bhandari, 2019). It may affect one or multiple senses, for example hearing, touch, sight, smell and taste. In addition to these five senses two more can be affected: proprioception and vestibular. Proprioception is the sense of self-movement and body position and vestibular is the sense of spatial orientation that contributes to balance.

Generally, there are two different types of Sensory Processing Disorders: Hypersensitivity and Hyposensitivity. A Highly Sensitive Person can also experience both types of sensory processing depending on the situation. the environment and the mood the person is in.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity can be diagnosed when the symptoms have a strong impact on daily life and the person cannot function as he/she was used to. In particular 40% of children with SPD also miss fine motor coordination which leads to difficulties while writing, also called dysgraphia (E. Marco, 2018).

Key Takeaways

  • Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS): more sensitive nervous system leads to higher input of information that need to be processed and might be overwhelming
  • Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD): brain struggles with receiving and responding to information that comes in through senses (hearing, touch, sight, smell, taste, proprioception and vestibular), Hyposensitivity (avoiding sensory input) and Hyposensitivity (seeking for sensory input)

Typical Characteristics

Sensory Processing Sensitivity


Sensory Processing Disorder

(Hyper- or Hypo)

easily overwhelmed by loud sensory input like large crowds, bright lights or sudden noises
more cautious when they have to face new situations, because they get upset about small changes in their routines or their environment as the processing of new information is too stressful,
sensitive and strong reaction to scents, fabrics and textures,

might refuse to wear uncomfortable or itchy clothing

time pressure can lead to not doing tasks at all or anxiety refuses to try new foods, very limited diet or preferred foods
multitasking situations are harder to handle avoids touching or hugging people
tend to be more cooperative than competitive, have a higher performance when they are not observed looks for quiet spots in noisy environments
tend to be perfectionistic, because they want to be prepared for every scenario have trouble knowing where their body is in relation to others or the environment around them
highly empathetic, realize and feel moods from others automatically, get overwhelmed by feeling constantly touches objects, invades others personal space
their own feelings and the others’, tend to say “yes” instead of “no” as they do not want to disappoint anybody, because they feel their disappointment right away plays roughly and takes physical risk like climbing on very high trees
need time on their own to reduce overstimulation, like to be in less stimulating environment tend to be fidget, always moving around, easily distracted, clumsy and uncoordinated
more sensitive to physical pain or the effect of stimulating substances (e.g. caffeine) high tolerance for pain, fail to respond to extreme heat or cold
tend to have a richer inner live and to think deeply about the world around them, need more sleep due to their depth of processing
have a strong emotional response to art and music

Sensory Processing Sensitivity and especially the word “disorder” might seem like a disadvantage in the first place, but if the perspective gets changed the advantages of being more sensitive appear.

A Highly Sensitive Person:

  • tends to be more creative, because HSPs make connections intuitively, which leads to linking and combining ideas.
  • can feel physical sensations more intensively, e.g., relaxes during a massage better.
  • is highly empathetic and therefore more capable of understanding and especially relating to others, which is a reason people tend to ask HSPs for advice.
  • can walk in a room, “feel” the atmosphere and adapt the mood automatically.
  • sees connections that others miss as for instance the tone of voice that does not match the words, which makes them a good judge of characters.
  • can think about a topic longer and more deeply, which can lead to different results afterwards.

Adapted from: European Center for High Sensitivity (n.d.), Granneman (2019), The Understood Team (n.d.)


  1. What are the two types of Sensitivity and its subtypes?
  2. Try to remember five characteristics of a person with a higher sensitivity?
  3. Repeat at least two advantages of being highly sensitive
Additional Resources:
  • Podcast Raising a Highly Sensitive Child by Dietitians Dish
  • Movie from 2015 “Sensitive – The Untold Story” with and about Dr. Elaine Aron

The characteristics do not appear all the time or all together and therefore it is not obvious to define if a person has a higher sensitivity or disorder, because it can be a fluent process in between as well. Those characteristics can differ individually and therefore SPS and SDP cannot easily be diagnosed.

Aron underlines that 70% of people with SPS or SPD are introverts, because it is their strategy to avoid stimulation and being overwhelmed, but 30% are extroverts, because they were raised that way and want to fulfil expectations even if these are against their preferred behaviour (Dr E. Aron, 1996). A teacher needs to be careful while supporting a child who seems to be introverted only in the first place, because

if a child shows an unexpected reaction to something, he/she might only have a bad day, or this child could be dealing with a severe problem due to their sensitivity.

Elysa Marco, who is a cognitive and behavioural paediatric neurologist, points out that children with SDP want to engage with others socially, but they cannot tolerate the sensory stimulation that comes within this socialisation.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity as well as Sensory Processing Disorder can be seen as a spectrum where a person can be in, but this might change in a positive or negative direction over time. That is why a typical characteristic of SPD can be the maximization of a characteristic of SPS.

Share and Discuss:

Do you think Sensory Processing Sensitivity or Disorder can be an advantage? Why or why not?



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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by Lea Dartenne; Madlena Loffler; Julia ZIpfel; and Laura Matalla is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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