Frequently Asked Questions

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Question:  What is Sensory Processing Sensitivity ?
Check out my 5 minute YouTube video for a succinct answer.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity vs. Sensory Processing Integration  Disorder
By:  Barbara Allen-Williams, Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC

Question:       I’ve heard that Sensory Processing (Integration) Disorder (SPD) and Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) have common features and are related.. Is it true that they are variations of the same thing?

Answer:      No, they are not the same, although the confusion is understandable.    Sensory Processing Sensitivity, (or HSP, Highly Sensitive Person) is not a condition, a disorder, or a diagnosis.  It is a genetic, innate, neutral trait.   The HSP’s nervous system is highly organized but can become easily overstimulated not only by sensory stimuli, but also because of their more active prefrontal cortex, which results in greater Depth of Processing.     Thanks to research conducted at Stony Brook University in New York, by Drs.  Art and Elaine Aron,   fMRIs have shown the prefrontal cortex of the HSP brain to be more active than non-HSPs.

Further,   HSPs process stimuli in a highly organized, big picture way, which includes awareness of nuances and subtleties that others might not notice.    At times, HSPs can become extremely  overstimulated  by the sheer amount of information they may be asked to process.     Non-HSPs in our society, who make up about 80% of the general population, do not experience the same level of overstimulation that causes distress to HSPs, in their day to day experience of the world.

Sensory Processing (Integration) Disorder is a neurological disorder.  It involves the senses; the vestibular system; proprioception, motor control, balance and spatial awareness, and causes sensory information to get “mixed up” in the brain resulting in responses  that are inappropriate in the context in which they find themselves. (  This can include random and disorganized processing of external stimuli, and can cause great distress, intensity and overstimulation.  This overstimulation is sometimes confused with the overstimulation HSPs clearly experience, but it should be noted that the root cause of the overstimulation is not the same.

Regardless of the profound differences in these traits, there are ways to minimize overstimulation.   Many with Sensory Processing Disorder have found success with occupational therapists who help them better integrate stimuli into their experience.     Many with Sensory Processing Sensitivity have found success by simply become educated about their genetic trait.  They learn to create a proper balance in their day which may include meditation, creative arts, walks in nature, yoga, and learning which environments serve them best.  Many have found seeking outside professional help from those who are educated about SPS to be helpful  — mainly to help them reframe and understand their experiences as being normal.

Perhaps the truest test of what differentiates SPS from not only SPD,  but also other diagnoses such as Autism and Aspergers Symdrome,  are the four things all HSPs have in common ~ the D.O.E.S. as defined and eloquently explained in Elaine Aron’s book, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person. 

D.O.E.S.   refers to:  Depth of Processing; Overstimulation; Emotional Intensity; and Sensory Sensitivity .  For example here are some questions to ask in each category which help identify and differentiate Sensory Processing Sensitivity:

 Depth of Processing:

  • Does this person reflect more than others about the “way the world is going;” the meaning of life or their line of work?
  • Does this person experience deeper feelings of empathy and feelings for others especially around social injustices, and those who may be suffering?
  • Does this person exhibit personal insight and have a sense of long term consequences?

Over Stimulation –

  • Does this person experience overstimulation and burn out due to the sheer amount of incoming information, experiencing a sense of not being able to handle any more? And when in a gentle environment, do they effectively process and integrate stimuli?
  • Do others sometimes think something is wrong with them because they cannot handle as much as others seem to? This may be because HSPs often decline activities, even if enjoyable, in order to take care of themselves.
  • Does this person need more sleep and downtime that the rest of their family and friends?

Emotional Intensity

  • Is this person more easily and appropriately moved to tears of joy, gratitude or relief, and equally moved to laughter whether by sheer silliness or subtle irony?
  • Does this person react more to the emotions of others and often know what you are feeling far more often than others would?
  • Does this person become more distressed by violent TV shows or movies; unfairness, bullying or other disturbing events?

Sensory  Sensitivity  –

  • Is this person sensitive to changes in temperature, finding it uncomfortable to be too hot or too cold?
  • Does this person have more side effects to caffeine, medications or need smaller dosages than others?
  • Is this person more aware of the sound of a ticking clock or dripping water, subtle tastes and smells than others?
  • Does this person notice what needs to be changed in an environment to make others more comfortable?


Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron

Sensory Processing Disorder :

What is SPD?

Barbara Allen-Williams
Retired Therapist & Supervisor, Founder, Mentor & Trainer at National Centre for High Sensitivity (UK) & Growing Unlimited Therapeutic Consultancy

Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor and co-founder of the HSP  Gathering Retreats with Dr. Elaine Aron in 2001.    Jacquelyn has worked exclusively with HSPs since 2000.


7 Responses to Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Rose Duthie says:

    I am a 52 year old woman. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I am alone. No family. Just myself and my grown son who has his own place. I am lonely. Isolated. HSP, and have mental health issues. Looking for friends and also hope to find the man of my dreams and remarry. What is my first step.

    • Jacquelyn says:

      Your very first step is becoming familiar with your HSP trait, and learning to love, accept and honor yourself ! Then, I would suggest
      finding or starting a HSP Meet Up near you … and starting s.l.o.w. in meeting and sharing with others, without any expectations of meeting
      a partner or making best friends right away. It is a process and a journey to becoming empowered as an HSP.. … please proceed with care and love for yourself, Jacquelyn

  2. Kristina says:

    The article seems to say that Sensory Processing Disorder involves various senses, motor control, balance, and spatial awareness, and that when these get mixed up and yield an inappropriate response, it is most likely SPD. With the research I did, there are various types of SPD. The one that we are interested in when comparing HSP and SPD traits is Sensory Modulation subtype of SPD and particularly the over-responsiveness aspect of Sensory Modulation. What I am going at is that a person with SPD need not have problems with balance or spatial awareness, but may simply be very sensitive to stimuli, just like HSPs are. This is where I find it difficult to distinguish between the two.

    Perhaps this has something to do with degree. But how where do you draw the distinguishing line? Is this person so sensitive that they are no longer only an HSP but also have a Sensory Processing Disorder?

    I personally find that I meet pretty much all definitions of HSP (mentioned in the article). However, I also find that being overstimulated by information and sensory input throughout the day at work makes my productivity go way below average. It is causing problems to the point when dismissal may be considered. Do I have SPD? Or am I just silly for staying at a job that isn’t suitable for HSPs? (It’s an open office job involving copious amounts of carefully reading guidance in relation to various situations and acting on them in an office of about 50 people where many talk about non-work related things, people walk by you etc)

    • Jacquelyn says:

      Hello Kristina,
      Thank you for sharing the information you have discovered about the subtype of SPD: Sensory Modulation. I have not heard of this … From what I just read on this great website: Sensory Modulation is also a disorder and does involve “over-responsiveness” as well as “under-responsiveness.” So, yes, being very sensitive to stimuli would be “over-responsiveness” and would not be the same as an HSP who is “over stimulated.” And, SPD contains many different “patterns” and subtypes .. with balance and spatial being just one of many patterns or subtypes.
      Being in a job that is not suitable for an HSP, in which she or he is constantly overstimulated with sensory input, information — not to mention the varied energies and moods of co-workers ~ would most definitely cause overstimulation and stress. These types of (negative, for the HSP – and most likely others) can affect our overall sense of well-being, including our emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual and even physical senses of well being. And, of course, this would affect our productivity, and probably add to most of us feeling bad about not being able to do “our HSP, conscientious best.”
      So, my first hunch, is that no, you do not have SPD. Yet, if overstimulation is cutting into your productivity and causing potential dismissal it might be
      time to ask for new ways in which you
      might be able to “do your best work.” For HSPs, this might mean having a quieter area of the office to work; ability to work off-site or at home; or taking a lap top and working in a lunch room (until meal times.) And setting boundaries around your work time might help — such as wearing head phones so you can listen to music, and politely refraining from talking about subjects that do not interest you … Hope this helps…. and good luck …. P.S. Here is more on this subject from Elaine Aron’s newsletter:

  3. ANDREA M BARRY says:

    Thank you for turning my Ball of Confusion energy and sensitivity into something I can understand and hope to manage ! I was ridiculed and teased by my father and other members of the family in high school and college so low self esteem is my middle name. Believe it or not ; my dad was a guidance counselor ! =(

    I ranked high in my studies only to burn or crash due to an emotional obstacle ….
    I hope to study my condition or asset more as it has effected my work and may have led to me leaving employment when I could of stayed and worked it out !

    Thanks to my counselor in Fort Collins who saw symptoms of HSP and helped me on the road…

  4. Rachel says:

    I think you are talking about Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) as a sensory processing disorder. EDS means a person is hypermobile in their soft tissues and joints and cannot make proper collagen to repair injuries and the effects of aging. EDS people have brains that find prorioception difficult because the joints and soft tissues ‘over move’, confusing the brain as to their precise location. That produces and experience of over sensitivity, neuro plastic adverse changes in the brain, and very often leads to chronic pain states ie, when the brain is so confused by erratic signals of the body’s position that it erroneously sends out pain signals. This becomes a feedback state of Chronic Central Pain, an incurable neurological disorder and disability. I see no reason to separate SPD and HSP because the results and the self care required are the same. Shutting out a group of EDS (a genetic disorder) sufferers with SPD seems to be to be unnecessarily cruel. The techniques of management taught in neuro rehab for pain are exactly the same as the ones you advocate for HSPs. In addition one can be both SPD and HSP.HSP can transform into SPD through adverse life events, surgery, accidents etc. Fibromyalgia and CFS/ME are related conditions,

    • Jacquelyn says:

      Dear Rachel,
      First thank you for reaching out and sharing your challenges with Ehlers DAnlos Syndrome (EDS.) Symptoms of discomfort, especially chronic pain, can definitely feel worse for HSPs since we experience discomfort more intensely. Even though “remedies” for soothing our nervous systems may be similar to Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD,) Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) or even those on the Autism spectrum , we cannot conclude that SPD, SPS and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) are the same. EDS appears to be an inherited “syndrome” whereas SPS is, in and of
      itself, a “neutral” trait; it is not a condition, nor a diagnosis, therefore there is no “treatment” for it. However we do know that learning about the neutral trait of SPS can help one to live fully and often happily, especially if one has had “good enough” parenting in childhood. Also chronic pain is not part of SPS or SPD. Sensory Processing Integration Disorder (SPD) is a condition for which there is successful treatment often with an occupational therapist. See: According to this website, SPD now has a new name ~~ Dysfunction in Sensory Integration (DSI.) Another reference for SPD is an article written by Dr. Elaine Aron, myself and Barbara Allen-Williams.
      I can’t imagine the challenges and suffering you must endure in order to live with EDS, and I can understand it must feel cruel to be dealing with such a diagnosis. However, I cannot agree that correctly defining the terms, both of which have been scientifically researched, are the cause of any cruelty. Certainly any adverse life event can exacerbate just about any genetic trait, neutral or a disorder or syndrome.
      Finally, I do agree that one can be highly sensitive and also have DSI – Dysfunction in Sensory Integration. A friend and colleague, Melissa Schwartz and her colleage, an occupational therapist are soon to publish their book called: The-Intersection-of-High-Sensitivity-and-Sensory-Processing-Disorder.
      Wishing you strength as you deal with the unfortunate situation life has handed you. Jacquelyn

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