Sensory Processing Disorder and Executive Functioning: Strategies for Improved Functionality


 Executive functions are essential cognitive skills that help us lead fulfilling lives. However, for those with conditions like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), resulting Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can severely hamper executive functioning.

 But, there are a variety of ways that SPD and the struggles it causes its sufferers can be managed with sensory support, improving executive function along the way.

 In this article, we’ll take a look at why executive functioning is crucial, how SPD can affect executive functions, and why strategies like heavy work activities, distraction limitation and sensory swings are effective aids.

Understanding Executive Functioning

Executive functioning refers to a specific set of mental skills. These skills mean we can use external information to complete cognitive processes, like planning and executing tasks, and solve problems along the way.


In particular, executive functioning involves:


  • Working memory - Have you ever completed a mental calculation? To remember the different parts of the sum and manipulate the information you’ve been given, you’ve used your executive function.


  • Mental flexibility - When we’re given new information or conditions change, executive function helps us know what to prioritize and how to apply new perspectives to the task at hand. Multi-tasking is another way we exhibit mental flexibility.


  • Inhibitions - If you’ve been taught to think before you talk, then you’ve been told to control your impulses. To do this, you must use your executive function.


  • Motivation - Executive functioning gives us the get-up-and-go to start a task without procrastinating, and work through it without giving in to distractions.


  • Emotional regulation - Understanding, expressing and controlling our emotions, as well as recognizing, understand our impact on, and responding appropriately to the emotions of those around us, requires us to use our executive function.


These higher-order cognitive skills are necessary for daily life. But, SPD can affect key components of executive functioning because sufferers experience daily challenges understanding and responding to sensory stimuli. 


What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?


SPD affects how an individual’s brain processes sensory stimuli. The term ‘sensory stimuli’ commonly refers to things we can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, but also includes things that affect our balance, movement and body placement, and internal sensations such as a rumbling stomach or headaches. SPD can cause both hypersensitivity and under-sensitivity to sensory stimuli.


Though SPD is not considered a standalone condition, it can affect those of all ages with ADHD, ASD and other developmental conditions. It’s thought that at least 1 in 20 people, regardless of other conditions, may suffer from SPD and its resulting difficulties.


Common Executive Functioning Challenges in SPD


A 2020 study published in Research in Developmental Disabilities of those with ASD showed that “sensory processing difficulties predicted executive and cognitive dysfunctions in the specific domains of inhibitory control, auditory sustained attention, and short-term verbal memory.”


Essentially, though the relationship between SPD and executive function can vary depending on the individual, there are some common effects on executive function that those with SPD will likely face. These include:


  1. Struggles Regulating Emotions


SPD can lead to heightened sensitivity to external stimuli like sound, light and physical touch. Aversions to these stimuli can cause strong emotional reactions, and these reactions affect the ability to control behaviour and focus on tasks.  


  1. Lack of Attention and Concentration


When you’re hyperaware of a myriad of sensory information, how do you know what requires your attention? For those with SPD, especially as a result of ADHD, maintaining concentration on a task when dealing with distracting and overwhelming sensory stimuli is difficult. Similarly, controlling the impulse to become distracted or procrastinate is a challenge.


  1. Disorganization and Trouble Planning


Individuals with SPD are sensitive to and may dislike certain textures, making organizing personal belongings or items a challenge. On top of this, when these individuals know a task will involve touching or feeling things they are averse to, they may avoid planning for and executing these tasks.


  1. Decreased Motivation


Leading on from the above, avoiding highly sensory tasks leads to a lack of motivation. On top of this, distressing sensory experiences can leave SPD sufferers feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, exacerbating this issue.


  1. Decreased Flexibility and Adaptability


New or unexpected sensory experiences can distract or distress those with SPD, and are difficult to adapt to. This is why shifting between important tasks and accounting for changes in the environment are difficult for those with hypersensitivity.


  1. Difficulty Motor-Planning and Executing Tasks


Tasks that require fine-motor skills, such as writing, art, cooking or sports can be a challenge for those with SPD, as the condition can hamper coordination. Executing these tasks takes time, and with a combination of lack of motivation, avoidance and distractions, these tasks become even more troublesome.



As sensory stimuli can cause those with SPD to experience challenges in executive functioning, fostering a regulated and comfortable environment is paramount for sufferers to complete tasks without becoming overwhelmed. But how exactly can sensory input be managed with sensory support?

Incorporating Sensory Strategies


As discussed, SPD may cause hypersensitivity or lack of sensitivity to sensory stimuli. Different strategies will work better to improve executive function depending on the type of SPD present.


Below are some strategies to regulate sensory processing and improve executive function.


Heavy Work Activities


Heavy work refers to activities that push or pull against the body. Heavy work may include:


  • Carrying a pile of objects
  • Pressing hands together
  • Hand clapping games
  • Wheelbarrow games
  • Crawling or ‘animal walking’
  • Tug of war


Heavy work requires individuals with SPD to use their motor functions and pay attention to proprioception (the placement and movement of the body). Heavy work before or after tasks can lead to improved concentration.


Sensory Exposure Activities


Gradual exposure to sensory stimuli, when involved in one, controlled activity, can help regulate input. These activities could be:


  • Gardening
  • Painting
  • Cooking or baking with tasting sessions
  • Playing in a sandbox or ball pit
  • Making a (controlled) mess
  • Water play
  • Exploration and walks
  • Dancing and performing


Remember to discuss with those with SPD about what they can feel/see/touch/smell/hear during the activities, and always have a towel or bowl of water nearby to remove tactile sensations if necessary.


Distraction Limitation


For those with SPD, even little things can provide huge distractions. Limiting these distractions can improve focus and concentration, giving sufferers one less thing to worry about. Limiting distractions may include cutting the tags off clothing, wearing soft or acceptable clothing, sitting in a quiet area, putting devices on silent with no vibration, or giving the sufferer noise-canceling headphones.


Break Spaces


When sensory stimuli become overwhelming, executive function can be severely hampered. A set space where individuals can go to remove themselves from distracting stimuli and surround themselves with acceptable stimuli, like stress balls and textured surfaces, can help emotional regulation. However, breaks work best when they are a regular part of a set schedule, and are not endless or sporadic.


Sensory Swings


Sensory swings and therapy swings can fit into many aspects of an individual with SPD’s daily schedule. Sensory swings assist with:


  • Improved physical awareness
  • Enhanced balance and coordination
  • Reduction of sensory-seeking behaviors
  • Providing a calming effect
  • Increased attention and focus
  • Development of the vestibular system
  • Assistance with motor planning skills
  • Alleviation of anxiety and stress


Therapy swings can be a sound addition to a break space, and work as part of playtime and other sensory support activities.


Choice and Control


Most sensory activities will be more effective at improving executive function if the individual with SPD is afforded some level of choice or control. For example, a ‘sensory bin’ that includes favorite utensils, fidget toys and key-rings, or objects with tactile parts can present SPD sufferers with a choice of sensory exposure activities.


Where control is concerned, sensory activities that empower individuals with SPD are effective at promoting exposure, concentration and emotional regulation. For example, acting as a sports referee and blowing a whistle, passing out items or serving food to friends and family, or decorating their own sensory space.


In Conclusion…


As Sensory Processing Disorder affects how our brains process sensory information, it can have a significant and consistent impact on executive function. Emotional regulation, attention, and motor function may all suffer as a result of SPD.


Understanding and recognizing these challenges is crucial for developing effective sensory support strategies. Heavy work activities, sensory exposure, limiting distractions, break spaces, and sensory swings as part of a daily routine can provide relief and enhance executive function for those with SPD.


By creating regulated environments and empowering individuals with choices and control, the challenges posed by SPD can be mitigated, promoting optimal executive functioning.


By: Adriana Lopez




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