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sensory-based motor disorders October is National Sensory Awareness Month AND Physical Therapy Awareness Month.  It is a perfect time to introduce the very important connection between sensory and motor – sensory-based motor disorders.  Discover how physical therapy can play an integral role in supporting sensory motor development.

Physical therapists and physical therapist assistants help individuals maintain, improve and restore mobility.  In working with kids with various challenges, physical therapists help them to continue to “Move Forward”.

Tease Apart the Sensory Sub-Types

Sensory Modulation Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder is more than an over- or under-responsivity and a sensory craving that is part of one subtype: Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD).  SMD presents as a hyper- or hypo-sensitivity to the five main senses, in addition to, difficulty with the additional senses of proprioception, vestibular and interoception.  Sensory Modulation Disorder is the most known sub-type.

Sensory Discrimination Disorder

Some children experience another sub-type known as Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD).  Carol Kranowitz, author of The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, defines SDD as “a problem interpreting the characteristics of sensory stimuli and in differentiating among and between sensory stimuli.”

Gwen Wild, OTR/L of Sensational Brain, elaborates, “Children with SDD have difficulty making sense of subtle qualities of sensory stimuli.  For example, these children are likely to struggle with things like finding a specific slotted spoon in a utensil drawer, or a certain notebook among the other objects in a cluttered desk.

Educationally, these children struggle to discriminate similar shapes, such as square vs. rectangle or similar letters such as p, b, or d.  They often have trouble recognizing differences in similar sounds which add up to making learning to read and write very difficult.”

Wild recommends “clinically-based occupational therapy focused on providing the just-right amount of proprioceptive, vestibular, and tactile input to enhance discrimination.

Sensory-Based Motor Disorders

A third subtype, often overlooked by concerned parents, is Sensory-Based Motor Disorder which includes Dyspraxia and Postural Disorders.  Kranowitz describes sensory-based motor disorders  as “pertaining to the brain-behavior response of receiving sensory messages (sensory input) and producing an adaptive response (motor output)”.

At a quick glance, Sensory-Based Motor Disorders may include some of the following issues.  For additional support, we have provided additional links to discover supportive insight.

Oral Motor Isms – Sensory-Based Motor Disorders

Motor Planning (Dyspraxia) Isms

  • positional struggles – Stay and Play Balance Ball
  • trouble planning, organizing or sequencing – Motor Planning
  • difficulty with knowing where his body is in space – Vestibular Activities and How to Use Them
  • self-help skill deficits – Teaching Basic Life Skills
  • gross motor control – Gross Motor Solution Center
  • poor eye-hand coordination – Six Tips to Teach How to Throw and Catch

Bilateral Coordination Isms

Crossing the Midline Isms

  • trouble tapping a hand on the opposing shoulder
  • difficulty reading from left to right – Reading & Writing Solutions
  • trouble with visual tracking – Vision Therapy

A Deeper Look at Dyspraxia

Physical Therapist, Dr. Joni Redlich of Kid PT, explains, “Dyspraxia is a term used to describe children who appear clumsy, have poor balance, and have difficulty performing activities in their daily lives, such as dressing, coloring, and playing on the playground.

Challenges of Dyspraxia

Children with dyspraxia often have challenges with visual perceptual skills, motor planning, and academic demands.  Dyspraxia falls under the diagnostic term Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), but is also frequently seen with other developmental disorders, including ADHD, hypotonia and autism spectrum disorders.” (1)

Work with Strengths in Sensory-Based Motor Disorders

Dr. Redlich believes that movement is often a strength in children with various isms.  Redlich shares, “Perhaps the child cannot talk or doesn’t know how to initiate play with a peer, but they can typically walk down the block and climb the monkey bars.

We’re not talking about the quality, variety, or skill level of movement.  Children with sensory-based motor disorders often have significant deficits in these aspects of movement. We are so often focused on what children with developmental disabilities can’t do and come up with strategies to improve these areas.

What if we flip it and look at their strengths? If we have identified movement as a strength, then how can we use that strength to help a child learn, have fun and engage in social interactions?” (2)

Redlich continues, “Movement is an integral part of our social, emotional, and physical lives. Children with various isms often cannot coordinate the myriad of movements needed to complete certain interactions.

Motor Differences

Motor differences are often due to challenges in motor planning, sensory processing, reflex development and muscle tone.  Movement related activities can help to develop motor planning and strengthen muscle tone.

Explore Programming for Reflex Development

Motor Planning

Motor planning challenges make it difficult for a child to time, sequence, and execute a movement.  Challenge may include difficulties in reaching for an object, crawling towards mom, or activating a toy. Motor planning challenges can also lead to repetitive play.

Explore Motor Planning

Sensory Processing

Sensory processing differences often cause children with various motor isms to take in misinformation from the environment.

Explore Sensory Diet Activities

Low Tone

Low tone, or decreased stiffness of the muscles, requires the child to use more energy, can delay motor development, and will decrease sensory feedback a child gets from movement. The child with various isms will learn to roll, crawl, and walk, but the quality of their movement may be poor.” (3)

Explore More >> Learn How to Control Your Child’s Core

Sensory Benefits of Hippotherapy


Many children with sensory processing disorder, specifically the sub-type sensory-based motor disorders,  can benefit from physical therapy.  Physical therapy will help to provide a solid motor foundation in which sensory processing skills can occur and sensory discrimination skills can develop.  Maximizing movement abilities will support the continuous feedback loops that occur within the body.  Movement will create communication between the various sensory systems and the motor system.  Movement activities set the stage for learning, social interaction and play.


(1) Redlich, Joni, DPT. “Dyspraxia: Conquering the Motor ChallengesKid PT. N.p., 14 Mar. 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

(2) Redlich, Joni, DPT. “Movement As A Tool: How We Can Learn Through Our Strengths.Kid PT. N.p., 14 Dec. 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

(3) Redlich, Joni, DPT. “Autism Spectrum Disorders and Physical Therapy: The Motor Connection.Kid PT. N.p., 25 Jan. 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

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Using her background in health care administration, education and marketing, Tiffani created Special-Ism, an educational resource for parents, teachers, and clinicians of children with various isms. Currently, Tiffani serves as the Editorial Director at Special-Ism, focusing on solutions to the isms for all children at home, in the classroom and community.