Highly Sensitive Child or a Child with SPD?

What is the difference?

Sensitive Child


The Difference: 

A child who is highly sensitive is not the same as a child who has a diagnosis as having Sensory Processing Disorder.

As a mum of 4, I have learned this first hand. My two middle children have a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder among other diagnosis. My oldest child Hailey would be in my opinion, what is known as a highly sensitive child. Though she may share some similarities with her brother’s sensitivities she is different neurologically.


Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological disorder, wherein the sensory information obtained by the nervous system from the senses are not detected or processed properly. It results in inappropriate behavioral and motor responses.   

Occupational and Neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, has likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam”. SPD prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.

A child or an adult (SPD is a lifelong condition) with SPD will have difficulty acting correctly when relying on information received from his/her senses in their daily lives. It can result in the child having motor difficulties, spatial awareness, balance difficulties, depression, trouble in school, behavorial problems, anxiety. The list is endless as it can impact almost every part of a child’s life.

Sensory processing


A child with SPD may be referred to as being under or over responsive to stimuli.

A child who is said to be “Over-Responsive” to stimuli (sensation) is one who may have difficulty with clothing, light, sound, touch, taste. They would find input from these sources quite unbearable. Jack would be a classic example of “over-responsive” to stimuli, he cannot keep his shoes or socks on no matter what! He has learned to keep them on form school but the minute he gets in the door the shoes and socks come off and don’t go on again unless he must go outside or somewhere socially. He has severe light sensitivity too, resulting in his wearing sunglasses all the year round, no matter the weather he will be wearing sunglasses.

A child who is “Under-Responsive” to stimuli (sensation) is one who will have little to no reaction to the sensations he/she receives from external stimuli. In our case Conor could seriously hurt himself but would not seem to notice unless we drew attention to it. He once fell outside and badly grazed his knee, I thought he would need stitches (he didn’t as it turned out). He just got up and kept playing until his big sister Hailey saw the blood and alerted me.

In both cases regarding my Boys SPD, it impacts their lives negatively and consistently on a daily basis.

You can read more about SPD from The Star Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder

Highly Sensitive

Parenting Sensitive Children

The Highly Sensitive Child, like my daughter Hailey, may have strong feelings positive or negative about certain stimuli (sensations).

A Highly Sensitive child is more susceptible to the people and the situations around her. At different times the stimuli that may result in a strong reaction (positive or negative), will be different. For example, today if a highly sensitive child may take issue with something you say (well meaning and all as it may have been) and they may have an unexpected emotional reaction to your words. Yet tomorrow your words/actions (whatever the case may be), will not have the same reaction. In a child with SPD there will be a pattern and a continuity of theme regarding their potential aversion to something you do or how you say something.

The sensory information received by the nervous system in a highly sensitive child is processed properly and the appropriate responses (although heightened at times), occur afterwards- unlike the child with SPD.

The highly sensitive child will take in sensory stimuli at a more heightened level compared to children who are not overtly sensitive. As a result: their reactions to situations and people may make you feel they are being melodramatic in their responses and seemed “over-reactions”, but be warned there is no melodrama, they really are feeling overwhelmed in these situations.

A highly sensitive child will not have difficulties with their balance, spatial awareness, motor planning, unlike the child with SPD.

What can you do to help your Highly Sensitive Child?

  1. Have patience and understanding
  2. Give them space to retreat and relax
  3. Help them to understand being highly sensitive is a positive and not a negative.
  4. Help them to use their sensitivity in a positive manner such as encouraging them to write how they are feeling and what their thoughts are. 


I hope you have found this post helpful. I would love to hear your comments about Highly Sensitive Children. What works for you when your child is overwhelmed?

What is SPD









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