Sensory Processing is the body's ability to receive sensory information into the nervous system, process it and then allow the body to react, adapt, and respond appropriately to the world around us.
Sensory Processing occurs over the lifespan, as we constantly engage with our environment and have new experiences, though it is reported that the most intense and important period of our sensory development occurs between the age of 0–7 years.
Sensory processing difficulties occur when information coming in from the senses is not interpreted efficiently, and the brain is unable, or has difficulty making sense of the incoming messages. The result of sensory processing difficulties are often seen in a child’s behaviour, influencing the way they learn, move, feel about themselves and relate to others.
The way that we experience sensation is unique to everyone.
Types of Atypical Sensory Responses"
Some senses may be "Hyper-responsive (over)" meaning a very little amount of a sensation can be over-stimulating, so person "avoids". Other senses can be "Hypo-responsive (under)" meaning it takes a lot of a sensation before a person feels "just-right", so person "seeks, you may be familiar with the term “sensory seeking”. And you may have fluctuating responses and may be hyper-responsive in one system such as touch and hyporeponsive in another.
Our 8 Sensory Systems
Vestibular: This sensory system is located in the inner ear. It responds to motion (acceleration and deceleration) and changes in head position. It is important in relation to learning and behaviour because of its influence over muscle tone, ocular control, bilateral coordination, and balance.
Proprioceptive: This sense relates to an individual’s body awareness and ability to navigate movements around an environment. Sensory feedback is provided through muscles, joint, ligaments etc. Having an awareness of where our bodies are in spaces allows individuals to plan and coordinate actions without the need for input from the additional senses. For example being able to put an arm into a coat or foot into a shoe without looking.
Tactile: Is how one responds to touch. It is possible to be over-responsive to touch, have a decreased sensation to touch or have a mixed profile.
Auditory Processing: This refers to what one hears and how our brain responds to auditory information. It is the body’s awareness and discrimination of sound including voices and background noise and the ability to filter these. Children can be sensitive to sounds, have trouble registering sounds and language, or have combinations of both.
Visual & Visual Spatial Processing: This includes seeing and how the brain processes visual information. The visual system is responsible for the awareness of sights in the environment and all the factors thereof, including, but not limited to, light/dark, depth perception, identifying an object from a complex background, perceiving positions of objects in relation to self and/or other objects, and visual interpretation movement.
Gustatory System: Sense of taste
Olfactory System: Sense of smell
Interoception: Helps you understand and feel what's going on inside your body, the sense to tell when you feel hungry, full, hot, cold or thirsty. Having trouble with this sense can also make self-regulation a challenge. For example the feedback from the stomach to inform the individual they are full/hungry; or that an individual may feel anxious due to their heart beating faster.
How we can help:
Occupational Therapists (OTs) can:
Help kids appropriately integrate and respond to sensory input, allowing them to both make sense of and feel safer in the world.
Once the sensory processing areas of difficulty are established, strategies and techniques are implemented to address them.
The goal of occupational therapy is to foster appropriate responses to sensation in a functional, meaningful, and fun way.
Our occupational therapist will work with you in your home to explain your child’s sensory challenges and teach techniques and strategies to work on them. This is sometimes called a ‘sensory diet’ or regulation program.
Therapy aims to educate parents, caregivers, families, childcare workers and teachers to provide a context which is conducive to the child’s sensory processing style.
Adaptations to make the home or classroom more ‘sensory smart’, such as creating quiet spaces and reducing visual clutter are often suggested. Following assessment and discussion with the OT, parents may also opt to buy sensory items such as weighted blankets, pressure or lycra garments, fidget toys or even chewable jewellery and these will be discussed with you by our occupational therapist.
What techniques may be used during the treatment process?
The therapist will provide a variety of therapy techniques and these will be individualised to your child’s specific sensory needs, the context in which they need to function and the dynamics of their social environment. Some of the techniques used may include:
Therapressure Brushing Protocol
Therapeutic Listening - Vital Links
Trial and Implementation of a sensory diet through a home program
Implementation of cognitive approaches such as the Zones of Regulation, Alert program, or Autism Level up to promote to self-regulation
Implementation of the Kelly Mahler "The Interoception Curriculum", a step-by-step framework for developing interoceptive awareness and mindful self-regulation
Environmental modifications to support a child’s sensory processing patterns
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) affects 1 in 20 children (Ben-Sasson et al., 2009) and may be more common than that (Ahn et al., 2004)
STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder – More information related to SPD, treatment, and research. https://www.spdstar.org
Building Resilience in a Child with SPD https://www.spdstar.org/sites/default/files/file- attachments/Building%20Resilience%20Tip%20Sheet_0.pdf
Home Activities and General Guidelines https://www.spdstar.org/basic/home-activities
Profectum Foundation – Free webcasts about relating to children with sensory and communication-related disorders https://www.profectum.org
Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder by Lucy Jane Miller, Ph.D., OTR (2014)