What is Sensory Processing?
Sensory Processing is a term used to refer to the way in which our central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) receives messages from the environment and the body, organizes it, assigns meaning to it, and initiates a response to it. Typically, our brains receive sensory information from our bodies and surroundings, interpret the messages, and organize purposeful responses in an unconscious and automatic way. Some children may process sensory information poorly or inefficiently, which can lead to difficulty in responding to sensory information appropriately. When people misinterpret sensory information, it can affect the way that they respond to sensory information behaviorally, emotionally, motorically, and socially.
Senses are fundamental to a child’s ability to learn & function in their environment.
In addition to our five senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch), our bodies receive sensory information from other vital systems, including:
- The tactile sense provides information through the surface of our skin about the texture, shape, and size of objects in our environment. It helps us distinguish between threatening and non-threatening touch sensations.
- The vestibular system provides information through the inner ear about where our body is in space. It lets our body know where our head and body position is in relation to the ground. This sense affects our sense of balance and movement.
- The proprioceptive system provides information through our muscles and joints about where our body parts are and what they are doing.
Occupational therapy researchers have developed subtypes of Sensory Processing Disorder to describe different difficulties that people experience when processing sensory information.
- Sensory Over-Responsivity: These individuals are more sensitive to sensory information and can be described as sensory defensive. They often perceive sensations as too “intense” or noxious. Children who experience sensory over-responsivity may appear fearful and cautious, avoidant, or negative and defiant if there are activities that they have trouble tolerating.
- Sensory Under-Responsivity: This describes people who are under-responsive to certain sensory stimuli and would not respond to the same intensity of a sensory stimulus that most others would. Children may appear difficult to arouse, withdrawn, difficult to engage, or self-absorbed because they do not detect the sensory input in their environment. They may not notice when they bump into people, may play with toys or other children more roughly, or have a high pain tolerance.
- Sensory Seeking: These people crave more intense sensory input and experiences. Children may be constantly moving, crashing, jumping, bumping, and spinning. They often touch everything they see, which can include objects and people. Many of these characteristics are also similar to ADHD symptoms, which could be a concurrent condition.
Sensory processing difficulties become a problem when they impact a child’s ability to participate in daily activities.
How Can Occupational Therapy Help?
Occupational Therapy intervention will focus on providing you and your child with skills so that they can succeed in life including slowly exploring difficult sensory experiences in a safe and supportive environment!