What causes Sensory Processing Disorders?

What causes Sensory Processing Disorders?

Sensory Processing Disorders: Nature, Nurture, and the Fragile Balance

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a complex condition that affects how the brain perceives and responds to sensory information. Children and adults with this disorder may find everyday sensory stimuli overwhelming, leading to a range of difficulties in everyday life. But in the ongoing nature vs. nurture debate, where does SPD fall? Are we born with it, or do external factors shape our sensory experiences? In this post, we'll explore how both genetics and the environment can play a pivotal role in the development of sensory processing disorders.

The Genetic Quilt of Sensory Processing Disorders

Research has shown that SPD often runs in families, and because genetics seem to sit at the core of many health conditions, genetics may explain the correlation.  However, having a correlation does not mean that genetics is what caused the condition. While someone with a particular genetic trait may be more likely to develop SPD, it does not mean that someone will develop it for sure. SPD may be just like other health conditions, like cancer and heart disease, that can run in families, but having a parent that has cancer or heart disease does not mean that the child will for sure get it too. Genes interact with the environment in a complex way, and there have been challenges in isolating particular genes that may contribute to Sensory Processing Disorders. Furthermore, many sensory processing disorders often co-occur with other conditions that have known genetic links, such as autism and ADHD. This genetic predisposition to sensory problems suggests that certain people may indeed be more susceptible to developing SPD.

Deciphering the Sensory Genome

Recent studies have started untangling the sensory genome, identifying potential gene candidates that could contribute to SPD. Researchers have looked at genes related to neurodevelopmental disorders, such as Fragile X syndrome and Rett syndrome, for clues. A study published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics has also identified novel gene variants in individuals with SPD, paving the way for a better understanding of the genetic underpinnings of sensory issues.

Inherited Sensitivities and Tendencies

Beyond the lab, families offer real-world support of the genetic component in SPD. Parents with sensory sensitivities often recognize similar traits in their children, reinforcing the notion of inherited sensory tendencies. These shared experiences can not only validate a family's history of sensory challenges but also foster empathy and understanding within the household.

The Role of the Environment in Shaping Sensory Experiences

While genetics lay the foundation for sensory processing, the environment acts as sculptor, shaping our sensory experiences from an early age. Our sensory systems first interact with the world outside the womb, and the stimuli they encounter can have profound effects on their development. For children with a genetic predisposition to SPD, certain environmental factors may trigger or exacerbate their sensory issues. 

Early Life and Sensory Development

The first years of a child's life are crucial for sensory development. Infants are bombarded with new sensations that help their brains wire the sensory pathways. However, adverse events or chronic stress during this sensitive period can disrupt normal sensory integration. For example, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that exposure to chronic unpredictable stress in mice led to persistent tactile sensory hypersensitivity. This suggests that early environmental factors such as stress can influence the development of sensory processing disorders. 

The Influence of Culture and Parenting

Cultural norms and parenting styles also play a significant role in how children interact with their sensory environment. A 2018 paper in the Frontiers in Psychology journal examined the impact of culture on sensory processing, highlighting how cultural differences can shape sensory preferences and aversions. Similarly, parents can inadvertently reinforce or mitigate sensory issues through their interactions with their children, further emphasizing the significant role of the environment in molding sensory experiences. A sensory therapist such as SensoryDoctor.com may be a good resource to help a family facing sensory processing issues. 

The Interplay Between Genes and the Environment

The nature vs. nurture debate is rarely an either-or proposition. In the case of sensory processing disorders, genes and the environment are intertwined. Research in epigenetics—the study of how gene expression can be influenced by environmental factors—underscores this interconnectedness. For example, a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests that certain environmental exposures can lead to epigenetic modifications that affect sensory perception.

Finding a Balance for Sensory Health

The interplay between genetics and the environment in sensory processing disorders highlights the need for a holistic approach to health. An optimal sensory environment, one that is rich in varied but not overwhelming stimuli, can help support individuals with SPD. This balance can be particularly challenging in modern life, with its cacophony of screens, sounds, and sensory distractions. By understanding the roles of both nature and nurture, we can strive to create environments that support healthy sensory integration for all.

Bridging the Gap with Early Intervention and Support

Regardless of the underlying causes, early intervention and support can make a world of difference for individuals with sensory processing disorders. Occupational therapists specializing in sensory integration can work with children to develop coping strategies and improve their ability to engage with their environment. For parents, educators, and caregivers, education and awareness are critical tools for recognizing and responding to sensory needs.

Genetic Counseling and Family Support

Genetic counseling can also be invaluable for families with a history of sensory issues. Counselors can help families understand their genetic risk factors and provide guidance for managing and supporting children with sensory challenges. The growing body of research into the genetic basis of sensory processing disorders offers hope for future targeted therapies and interventions.

Creating Sensory-Friendly Environments

The movement towards creating sensory-friendly environments, from schools to public spaces, is a step in the right direction. By adapting spaces to reduce unnecessary sensory stimuli, we can help individuals with SPD feel more comfortable and engaged.


Sensory processing disorders are multifaceted, with influences from both our genetic makeup and the world around us. By recognizing the roles of nature and nurture, we can better understand and support individuals with SPD. Further research into the genetic underpinnings of sensory issues, coupled with efforts to create supportive environments, can lead to improved outcomes for those living with sensory processing disorders. It is the delicate dance between our genes and the sensory world that shapes the unique fabric of our experiences, and it is within this dance that we find the potential for growth, understanding, and compassion for all.

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