What is Sensory Processing?
We all learn and interact with our world through the use of our senses. Sensory processing is the way in which our brain receives information from our environment and “processes” the information to create a response. Sensory information is entering our brain from all 6-7 systems at the same time. These sensory systems include: vision, hearing, smell, touch, taste, movement/balance, and proprioception (which is our body’s ability to tell where it is in relation to the ground and how hard the body is pushing against something). It is important that all of our sensory systems work together and our brain understands the information received, otherwise, a poor response may result. An example of this may be when an individual is bothered by a sound and feels the need to run away or cover his/her ears. When the body is able to receive, process and produce an appropriate response to information, then the individual will be able to respond to life events and stressors appropriately. An example of this would be a person who is able to focus on a task in a noisy environment (e.g. driving, writing a report, focusing on school work) instead of being distracted and unable to focus on their work. A brain should be able to pay attention to certain stimuli while ignoring unimportant stimuli. A poor response could be due to the brain perceiving information as either more or less intense than it actually is. These over or under responses to sensory information are commonly seen with some disorders (e.g. sensory processing disorder, autism, developmental delays) but also occur frequently with individuals without specific disorders, as well. When sensory disorders are disrupting an individual from completing the activities that are necessary to function, then that individual may benefit from intervention from an Occupational Therapist who specializes in treating sensory processing issues.
What does a poor sensory response look like?
Touch: Irritated by tags or clothing fabrics, dislikes touch (unless on his/her terms), dislikes hair and nail grooming, avoids messy play, constantly touches people or things.
Sight: Sensitive to bright or florescent lights, unable to focus in busy environments, always visually distracted, constantly seeking visual input (fast/bright colored shows, spinning objects, lights on/off).
Sound: Covers ears when overwhelmed, startles or becomes upset with unexpected sounds (hair dryer, toilet flushing, air planes, blender, etc.), doesn’t respond to name or seems unaware of normal sounds.
Smell and Taste: Moves away from odors, doesn’t notice strong odors, very selective eater, avoids tooth brushing, mouthing non-food items.
Movement: Dislikes swings or sudden movement, resists diaper changes (laying on back), difficulty with car rides, delayed walking/crawling, constantly seeking movement through running, spinning, swinging, high or low activity level.
Body Awareness: Uses too much or too little pressure, trips and falls often, constantly seeking activities with pushing, pulling, jumping or climbing, poor motor skill development, clumsy.
*When a child or adult has difficulty processing sensory information through one or more sensory systems, it can affect his/her: Attention span, behavior, social interaction, ability to calm down once upset, motor skill development, language development and overall participation in everyday activities.
Who can help with Sensory Processing Disorder?
Occupational Therapists who specialize in sensory integration techniques are recommended to address Sensory Processing Disorders and challenges. An Occupational Therapist will evaluate the child (or individual) to determine what systems may be causing delays in development or difficulties participating in typical every day activities. Sensory integration techniques are used and often provided through a “sensory diet” to gradually expose a child/adult to sensory input through repetition in a controlled environment. An Occupational Therapist is trained in techniques which use activities that provide sensory input from senses that help calm the child/adult while exposing them to the non-preferred or feared sensations. A sensory diet provided for in-home use is client specific and should fit into the client’s schedule in order to give the sensory input needed to help organize incoming sensory information. An Occupational Therapist may also provide recommendations for equipment or strategies that may help a client’s ability to tolerate or participate in certain environments where learning or interaction is required.
*With regard to sensory issues in children, it is important to be aware that child development should occur within a typical pattern, but can vary as to when skills are mastered over a period of several months. Each child is different and therefore, how they learn, develop and/or respond to treatment will also be different. Treatment should be tailored to the individual child.
If you have concerns regarding your child’s development, and feel that his or her delays may be related to sensory processing difficulties, please talk with your pediatrician about seeking help from a licensed Occupational Therapist. If you are an adult and believe that you have sensory issues which are preventing you from participating in certain tasks, please consult with your physician about seeking help from a licensed Occupational Therapist who specializes in the treatment of sensory disorders.