What is Sensory Processing?

All day, every day, we receive information from our senses – touch, hearing, sight, taste, smell, body position, and movement and balance. Our brains must organize this information so that we can successfully function in all aspects of daily life – at home, at school, at play, at work, and during social interactions.  We also have preferences regarding how much, or how little of each sensory area we can tolerate, or seek.  For instance, one jolt of coffee may be all you need to get started in the morning… or perhaps you need more?  Some quiet yoga, or a walk on the beach?

Consider the following descriptions, and your own sensory processing preferences:

The Senses

Touch — The tactile system provides information about the shape, size, and texture of objects. This information helps us to understand our surroundings, manipulate objects, and use tools proficiently. When you put your hand in your pocket and select a quarter from an assortment of change, you are using tactile discrimination.

Hearing — We use our auditory system to identify the quality and directionality of sound. Our auditory sense tells us to turn our heads and look when we hear cars approaching. It also helps us to understand speech.

Sight — Our visual system interprets what we see. It is critical to recognizing shapes, colors, letters, words, and numbers. It is also important in reading body language and other non-verbal cues during social interactions. Vision guides our movements, and we continually monitor our actions with our eyes in order to move safely and effectively.

Taste and Smell — The gustatory and olfactory systems are closely linked. They allow us to enjoy tastes and smells of foods and cause us to react negatively to unpleasant or dangerous sensations.

Body Awareness — Proprioception, or information from the muscles and joints, contributes to the understanding of body position. This system also tells us how much force is needed for a particular task, such as picking up a heavy object, throwing a ball, or using a tool correctly.

Movement and Balance — Located in the inner ear, the vestibular system is the foundation for the development of balance reactions. It provides information about the position and movement of the head in relation to gravity and, therefore, about the speed and direction of movement. The vestibular system is also closely related to vision, and postural control. For example, when the brain receives a signal that the body is falling to the side, it, in turn, sends signals that activate muscle groups to maintain balance.

Integrating Information from the Senses

Considering all of the sensory input we receive daily, it is truly amazing that one brain can organize all of the information flooding in simultaneously and respond to the demands of the environment. The complex nature of this interaction is illustrated in the following simple example:

Michael, a kindergartener, receives the instruction “Please put on your coat.” In order to comply, he must:

  • focus his attention on the speaker and hear what that person says
  • screen out incoming information about other things going on around him (auditory & visual)
  • see the coat and adequately make a plan for how to begin (vision, body awareness, movement)
  • see the armholes and sense muscle and joint positions in order to put his arms into the correct openings (vision, body awareness & movement)
  • feel, with touch awareness, that the coat is on his body correctly (touch, body awareness, movement)
  • use motor planning, touch awareness, and fine motor skills to zip or button the coat

In order to accomplish this seemingly simple task, the nervous system must integrate (focus, screen, sort, and respond to) sensory information from many different sources. Now, imagine the amount of sensory integration needed to ride a bicycle, participate in a soccer game, or pay attention in an active classroom. Individuals who have difficulties with all or part of this process face significant challenges when engaging in daily functional activities.

Studies suggest that as many as 1 in 20 children experience sensory processing challenges that interfere with everyday routines and activities. Challenges in sensory processing can result in delays in motor skills and problems with self-regulation, self-esteem, attention, and behavior that can affect performance in school, at home, with peers, and during leisure and work activities.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can occur when sensory signals are not organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. SPD can affect people in only one sense – for example, just touch or just sight or just movement–or in multiple senses. The disorder may lead one child to over-respond to sensation and another to under-respond. Sadly, misdiagnosis is common because many health care professionals are not trained to recognize sensory issues. These sensory issues can drive some children to seek sensation (which can look like hyperactivity) and others to avoid sensation (which can look like aggression or withdrawal).

If you have concerns about a child who seems to have challenges related to sensory processing, please call for more information, or to set up a consultation:

Tami Lawrence, M.S., OTR/L
Hilton Head Pediatric Therapy Center
60 Main Street, Suite H
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926