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What is Sensory Processing?

Throughout every moment of every day our body soaks up information from our senses – vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell along with our sense of body position or how our body relates to space and other body parts (proprioception) and our sense of movement (vestibular). Our brain receives these messages from our senses, interprets them, organizes them and then tells our body how to react. Sensory integration is constantly occurring and is automatic for most of us. Getting dressed, for example, is a thoughtless process for many of us, and yet has numerous steps involved.

When there is a glitch in any part of this process, the motor and behavioral responses are affected. The result is difficulties with learning, development and/or behavior. This is called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and it affects both children and adults from mild to severe. All of us experience sensory problems on occasion or even regularly and it doesn’t impact our day to day living. It’s when these problems disrupt everyday activities and social interactions and participation in some activities are difficult or even impossible that warrants help. Some children are affected in one area (sense of touch, sense of movement, etc.) while other children are affected in multiple areas. Some children are oversensitive to the world around them, making what others see as a simple task, a very challenging and energy draining experience. They dislike being touched or touch things whenever possible. Other children are under sensitive where they may seek out rough play even to unsafe degrees. Some children have a combination of both and all children with SPD fall on a continuum ranging from mild to severe thus no two children look identical. Often people with SPD feel constantly overwhelmed by the world around them.

Because these children misinterpret sensory information, they do not react as their peers may to the same situation. Sometimes parents describe their it as “my child has no control over his body” or that she “stays stuck”. It presents itself through physical (from playing kickball on the playground to cutting on a straight line with scissors), social-emotional (making a friend or playing a game with a group of others), academic (can’t finish the test because too distracted or unable to maintain attention) and behavioral (gets recess taken away because he keeps bumping into another child during class.) Some of these children are labeled “uncooperative" or “difficult”.

Sensory Processing Disorder is typically classified in three patterns. The symptoms vary in severity and are dependent on many factors such as time of day, stress level, setting, level or alertness, nutritional status, and so on.

  1. Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD) – involves problems with turning messages from our senses into adaptive behaviors that match the nature and intensity of the sensory information. This is characterized by one or a combination of the following:
    • Sensory Over-Responsivity: this can be the child who is moody, impulsive, has trouble forming relationships, or upset by transitions. He may be bothered by glue on his hands, food textures, background noises/noises in a restaurant, being upside down, playing on swings/slides, having his hair/nails trimmed.
    • Sensory Under-Responsivity: this can be the child who may be passive, easily exhausted, slow to respond to directions. She doesn’t cry when hurt, doesn’t notice when others touch her, prefers sedentary activities over physical ones, seems unaware of what’s going on around her, unaware of the need to use the bathroom, unaware of food on her face.
    • Sensory Seeking: this can be the child who is demanding, hard to calm, excessively physical. He may have trouble sitting still, is always on the move, likes crashing, jumping and roughhousing, constantly touches objects/people, prefers strong flavored tastes.
  2. Sensory Based Motor Disorder (SBMD) – involves difficulties with stabilizing, moving or planning a series of movements in response to sensory demands. This is broken down into:
    • Dyspraxia: this can be the child who has trouble learning how to ride a bicycle, is accident prone, bumps into other people, unintentionally breaks things, has trouble with multi-step care activities (getting dressed, eating), messy handwriting, etc.
    • Postural Disorder: this can be the child who appears lazy, unmotivated, seems to tire easily, seems weak, slumps in his chair, has trouble crossing the middle of his body, has poor balance and falls over easily, has trouble climbing a jungle gym, etc.
  3. Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD) – involves difficulties with sensing similarities and differences between sensations. This involves your senses including vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, body position, and movement.

Causes of SPD are unknown, however, trends have shown a high incidence in children with prematurity, Autism and other developmental disorders, LD, stress related disorders and brain injury. Most children with SPD are just as intelligent as their peers and some hold even higher intelligence. Their brains are wired differently. Treatment focuses on adapting the child’s motor and behavioral response so that the brain gets ‘rewired’. By doing this, we are able to process information from our senses more efficiently and effectively. We provide children with the “just right challenge” where the task or activity is challenging yet successful. Over time, children adapt their responses to sensory information more appropriately. Because no two children are affected in the same way, our treatment is individually based on each child and family’s needs and priorities.

We utilize specific activities to incorporate vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, movement and balance to help children find their optimal level of arousal. Once achieved, he/she is able to focus and acquire skills needed to sit and listen to the school teacher, make friends, keep up with peers on the playground, participate in mealtime, etc.