What is Sensory Processing?

Updated: Jul 22, 2018

"Sensory processing is our ability to register, process and organize sensations for use”



Sensations come from any of the seven following senses:


The familiar five senses:


1. Sight – sensations coming from the visual system in our eyes.

2. Smell – sensations coming from the olfactory system in the nose.

3. Hearing –sensations coming from the auditory system in the ear.

4. Taste – sensations coming from the gustatory system in the mouth.

5. Touch – sensations coming from the tactile system in our skin.


The unfamiliar, but very important, last two senses:


6. Gravity – sensations coming from the proprioceptive in our muscles and joints.

7. Movement – sensations coming from the vestibular system inside our ear.



WHY IS SENSORY PROCESSING IMPORTANT?


Just like an air traffic control system, our brains organize and integrate all the sensations flowing into our bodies at any given moment in time. Take you right now for example, what sensations is your body having to organize at this moment? What sounds are you filtering out in order to tune in into this article? Are you aware of the sensations coming from your skin about how comfortable your clothes are or has your brain organized this information in order for you to focus into what you are reading?


Sensations need to be organized before they can be used to form perceptions, behaviors and learning. If there a child has difficulty registering, processing or organizing this information the world can be a very confusing place for them. We perceive our body, people around us, and the physical environment because our brain has organized all of these sensations into meaningful concepts. Strong sensory processing skills support a child’s ability to attend, organize themselves and develop positive emotional and self-regulation skills. They are the foundation to a child’s academic learning ability and capacity for thought and reasoning.


Integration of sensations help develop foundational skills such as:


o Eye movement control

o Posture

o Balance

o Muscle tone

o Gravitational security

o Movement comfort

o Body percept

o Coordination of the two sides of the body

o Gross and fine-motor coordination

o Motor planning

o Eye-hand coordination

o Visual perception

o Sucking

o Eating

o Mother-infant bond

o Tactile comfort



POOR SENSORY PROCESSING


When sensory processing abilities are weak, we may say that the child has sensory processing difficulties or a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Essentially, what that means is that the air traffic control system of our brains is not processing sensations efficiently and there is some air traffic congestion. Although, this could be a result from an accident or an illness; however, the majority of children have no structural signs of damage. The process of sensory integration is simply not working correctly. I like to tell our families that just like we all have different personalities, our brain does as well. None of us organizes sensations perfectly. Some people will have especially good sensory processing skills, others will be average, and others will be poor.


Poor sensory processing can occur across sensory systems or can be system-specific. Difficulties can be related to modulation of sensory input impacting arousal (hypo or hyper responsiveness) or to the registration and discrimination of the sensations impacting motor control. Since these weaknesses can affect a variety of different skills and it can be difficulty to spot, a qualified occupational therapist with extra training in sensory processing is needed in order to determine what patterns of dysfunction a specific child could be presenting with.


How Does Poor Sensory Processing Look Like?


Visual System:

o Inadequate eye movements

o Difficulty getting the right information from what we are seeing

o Needing more time to figure out what we are seeing


Vestibular System:

o Fearful of heights

o Intolerance to movement

o Needing a lot of extra movement to stay optimally aroused

o Not interested in movement activities

o Difficulties coordinating both sides of the body


Proprioceptive System:

o Poor grading of force

o Rough play

o Poor awareness of where my body is in space

o Poor muscle tone and joint alignment


Tactile System:

o Difficulty tolerating different textures

o Needing a lot of extra touch to stay optimally aroused

o Picky eating

o Difficulty attaining age-appropriate fine-motor coordination skills


General:

o Disorganization of behavior

o Poor self-regulation

o Poor arousal regulation



SENSORY PROCESSING OR SENSORY INTEGRATION?


You might have also heard of another related term, sensory integration. It is often used synonymously with sensory processing, as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) was originally called Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID). Sensory integration is a component of sensory processing, it refers to the organization of sensory information in order to produce purposeful responses to sensory experiences. Sensory processing is a broad term encompassing the management of incoming sensory information by the nervous system from the moment is recorded by our body, how it is filter and combined with other sensory input at different levels.



SIGNS & SYMPTOMS OF SPD

According to the STAR Institute Center


Infant and Toddlers:

o Problems eating or sleeping

o Refuses to go to anyone but their mom for comfort

o Irritable when being dressed; uncomfortable in clothes

o Rarely plays with toys

o Resists cuddling, arches away when held

o Cannot calm self

o Floppy or stiff body, motor delays


Preschoolers

o Over-sensitive to touch, noises, smells, other people

o Difficulty making friends

o Difficulty dressing, eating, sleeping, and/or toilet training

o Clumsy, poor motor skills; weak

o In constant motion, in everyone else’s “face and space”

o Frequent or long temper tantrums


Grade-schoolers

o Over-sensitive to touch, noises, smells, other people

o Easily distracted, fidgety, craves movement; aggressive

o Easily overwhelmed

o Difficulty with handwriting or motor activities

o Difficulty making friends

o Unaware of pain and/or other people


Adolescents and adults

o Over-sensitive to touch, noise, smells, and other people

o Poor self-esteem; afraid of failing at new tasks

o Lethargic and slow

o Always on the go; impulsive; distractible

o Leaves tasks uncompleted

o Clumsy, slow, poor motor skills or handwriting

o Difficulty staying focused

o Difficulty staying focused at work and in meetings

o Unmotivated; never seems to get joy from life.



Although many kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) have sensory processing difficulties, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can occur in isolation. It is not recognizable by the DSM-5 but sensory processing researchers are working very hard in order for this to change.




Click here to download my PDF on The Development of Sensory Processing.

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