What is Sensory Integration Disorder?

Sensory Integration Disorder, also known as Sensory Processing Dysfunction (SID or DSI), occurs when an individual cannot process sensory information smoothly and efficiently. Children with this disorder may feel confused, afraid, overwhelmed, or angry when faced with sensations that other children handle easily. These emotions can influence their behavior significantly.

Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of The Out-of-Sync Child and The Out-of-Sync Child has Fun, notes that the main hallmarks of sensory processing disorders are unusual (and often extreme) responses to “tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensations – the sensations of touching and being touched, of moving and being moved.” The other senses – hearing, seeing, and tasting may also be involved.


Sensory Processing Disorders

Signs and Symptoms Children with Sensory Integration Disorder exhibit varied responses:

Types of Sensory Processing Issues

  1. Sensory Modulation Problems: The child fluctuates between over-reacting and under-reacting to sensory inputs due to an inability to regulate them properly.
  2. Sensory Discrimination Disorders: The child struggles to differentiate between various stimuli, leading to misunderstandings and misjudgments, such as overfilling a cup or tripping on stairs.
  3. Praxis Dysfunction (Dyspraxia): The child cannot plan and organize sequences of unfamiliar actions, making tasks like opening desks or getting dressed challenging.


Sensory Integration Disorders and Attachment

The link between sensory processing disorders and attachment issues is complex. Children who did not experience a consistent bonding cycle in their early years or who faced neglect or abuse are more at risk for sensory processing disorders and Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). These early experiences are crucial for developing the ability to modulate responses to sensory inputs.

Impact of Early Experiences A lack of early sensory experiences, such as rocking, swinging, and touch, can leave a child neurologically disadvantaged, making it harder for them to process sensory information effectively. This can lead to difficulties in emotional regulation and an exaggerated fight or flight response to stress.

Overlap with Other Disorders Children from neglectful backgrounds often exhibit both attachment disorders and sensory integration dysfunction, with overlapping symptoms like avoiding eye contact, extreme control, and inappropriate reactions. Distinguishing between these disorders can be challenging for professionals.

Effective Treatments Treatments for attachment disorders can also help children adapt to sensory processing issues. Conversely, treatments for sensory processing disorder can support the development of secure attachments when conducted by professionals aware of attachment concerns. Common therapies include occupational and physical therapy, listening programs, vision therapy, and cranio-sacral therapy.

The relationship between sensory processing disorders and attachment is complicated and not completely understood. However, common sense suggests that children who have failed to complete and repeat the bonding cycle in their first two years of life or who have suffered neglect or abuse will be at increased risk for developing sensory processing disorders, just as they will be at increased risk for developing RAD.

Throughout the attachment cycle the mother (or primary caregiver) acts to regulate the child; eventually, over many repetitions of the cycle, the child internalizes the mother’s messages and learns to modulate her responses to fit the situation. This capacity for modulation grows, in part because throughout the cycle, the mother is providing the infant with physiological experiences (rocking, swinging, sucking, touch) that are foundational for all future development. A child who has been institutionalized or otherwise neglected has been short-changed of these fundamental experiences. As a result, she is neurologically disadvantaged. No wonder she has difficulty processing sensory messages from the environment in as efficient a manner as her more “typical” peers. Moreover, in a developing child, sensory experience helps to shape neural connections and to prime the areas of the brain having to do with emotional regulation. If those connections are absent or minimal, the child may struggle to feel genuine trust or love. Instead, she relies on more primitive areas of the brain and shows an exaggerated fight or flight response to stress.

It is not surprising, then, to find that while it is possible for a child to be diagnosed with sensory processing disorder alone, or with RAD alone, many children coming from backgrounds of neglect suffer from both attachment disorders and sensory integration dysfunction. In practice, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish the two, since the symptoms can overlap. For example, children with sensory processing disorder may avoid eye contact, just as some children with RAD do. Children with sensory processing issues can be extremely controlling – just like children with RAD. Children with sensory processing disorders often show extreme and inappropriate reactions – just like children with RAD or PTSD. So it is confusing for even an experienced professional to distinguish the two.

Despite the problems of differential diagnosis, the good news is that treatments for attachment can help a child to overcome or respond more adaptively to sensory processing problems , and – when undertaken with professionals who are sensitive (not necessarily educated) about a parent’s attachment concerns – treatments for sensory processing disorder can help to secure attachment. The most common therapies for sensory processing disorder include occupational and physical therapy, “listening programs,” vision therapy, and cranio-sacral therapy.


Resources for Support



Web Resources:


Auditory Processing Links:




Occupational Therapy for Sensory Processing Disorders

Occupational therapy may be obtained through EI programs or through the schools, or privately. It may or may not be paid for through insurance. In working with an occupational therapist, it is important for a parent of an attachment disordered child to mention her concerns about attachment. If performed sensitively in the right environment, occupational therapy can look (and can work) a lot like Theraplay. The therapist (and/or the parent) are always in control of the sequence of activities. The activities are fun and are (or can be) designed to facilitate physical closeness and emotional connection between parent and child. Many of the activities described in Carol Stock Kranowitz’s book, The Out-of-Sync Child has Fun, are similarly suited to attachment work at home. So while you are addressing sensory processing problems, you can also be addressing attachment.

Support Groups In-person and online support groups can provide valuable resources and community support for parents. Online groups, including those on Yahoo and other platforms, can offer connections and advice from others facing similar challenges.

This information aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of Sensory Integration Disorder and practical resources for those seeking help. Always consult with a qualified medical professional or therapist for personalized advice and treatment options.

The above information was provided by Susan Olding, an ATN Member and parent of a child with Sensory Integration Disorder. As with all the descriptions on this website, we strive to present the most current information on all the disorders, issues and treatments related to attachment disorder and to focus on information our members have found useful. ATN does not recommend diagnoses or assumptions based on the information on this website and we make no claims as to the effectiveness of any treatment option. Please consult with a qualified medical professional and/or therapist for your individual situation.