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Does my child have ADHD, sensory processing disorder, or both?

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How do ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder differ?

ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) may look similar but are two different disorders, have different causes, affect different areas of the brain via different mechanisms, and have different evidence-based treatments. Differential diagnosis is important so the child and family are directed to the most appropriate supports.

The STAR Institute provides the following differentiation.

ADHD is a more likely diagnosis if a child:

  • Cannot stop impulsive behavior regardless of sensory input.

  • Craves novelty and activity that is not necessarily related to specific sensations.

  • Does not become more organized after receiving intense sensory input.

  • Waits or takes turns better with cognitive rather than sensory inputs.

  • Calms or improves attention when presented with constant novelty.

SPD is a more likely diagnosis if a child:

  • Calms or focuses when provided sensory inputs.

  • Becomes more dysregulated when provided novelty related to sensory input.

  • Dysregulation issues seem to follow a pattern (i.e., occur at a particular time of day or during particular activities).

  • Sensory sensitivities and/or craving behaviors do not seem to resolve with ADHD medication.

Occupational therapists do not “treat” ADHD

While Occupational Therapists generally do not "treat" ADHD, an OT may provide support if a child is struggling with motor skill development and has co-morbid sensory processing and modulation challenges. This support includes direct therapy with the child and environmental modifications to support a child’s sensory needs at home and school.

Mental health specialists do not “treat” SPD

Similarly, while mental health specialists generally do not treat SPD, a mental health specialist may provide support for parents to manage challenging behaviors while their child works to improve sensory processing and modulation. This support may also include medication management and implementation of behavioral/cognitive strategies.

Treatment for both ADHD and SPD may be the best course of action

Studies suggest 40% of children with ADHD also have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and will benefit from a treatment team that includes the physician, OT, and mental health provider.

The Pediatric Occupational Therapy Evaluation explores the following areas:

Gross Motor

Fine Motor

Sensory Processing




Postural Control

Scissor Skills


Hand-Eye Coordination

Visual Motor Skills


Bilateral Coordination

Self-Help Skills

Taste and Smell

Motor Planning

Visual Perception

Body Awareness



Contact us to learn more

Contact us to learn more about a pediatric occupational therapy evaluation, ADHD, SPD, and how the therapists at Sensational Kids Therapy may be able to help your child.

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