What is Sensory Processing?
Sensory Processing refers to how the brain registers, organizes, and uses sensory information from the body and the surrounding environment to interact effectively in everyday activities, both familiar and novel. Sensory information is taken in from the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, joints, muscles, inner ear, and organs and is organized in the central nervous system. Sensory information impacts all aspects of our life as it influences our behavior and actions.
Difficulties with attention, irritability, coordination, and engagement in daily tasks may be attributed by a disruption in sensory processing. We all have varied abilities to "tune in" or "tune out" sensory information, determine what is relevant to "pay attention to", and react to this information with an appropriate response. Sometimes, the brain over reacts to incoming sensory information. This can cause behavior that seems fearful, avoiding, or the person may appear to be "sensitive" to certain experiences. Conversely, sometimes the brain under reacts to incoming sensory information. Therefore, the child may create more intensive sensory experiences to meet their higher neurological thresholds for registering the input. They tend to "seek" more pressure, movement, or noise. Both under or over registering sensory information can impact attention, behavior, and performance in occupational roles and routines.
Sensory processing occurs from each of the 8 sensory systems, yes 8! The 8 sensory systems are:
Sensory processing difficulties can occur when an individual perceives information from their senses differently than others. It can make the input seem too intense or not intense enough! Difficulty with processing sensory information can impact all areas of an individual’s daily life, including playing, eating, attention and learning.
Tactile processing is how we perceive the sense of touch, tactile receptors are located in our skin. Sensations perceived include temperature, light touch, deep pressure, pain and vibration. If someone’s tactile processing is hypersensitive, they may avoid being messy, dislike the sand at the beach, dislike massages, or may seem overly sensitive to temperature. If someone’s tactile processing is hypo-sensitive, they may not notice when they have food on their face, touch everything in sight, or may seem unaware of pain. Here at Kids Thrive Therapy, we use many different strategies to help regulate our tactile systems all while always having fun!
The olfactory system provides us information about what we smell in the environment. It also is tied very closely to our emotion centers in our brain. Smelling various scents can trigger memories and strong emotions. Our sense of taste is also influence by our ability to smell.
Some children crave strong smells or explore their environment more through use of smell. It is important to supervise and educate them on what are dangerous or unsafe smells. You can encourage safe smelling activities during cooking activities, making scented play doh, playing with scratch n sniff stickers, and using lotion.
Other children may overreact to scents (hypersensitive), sometimes by gagging or vomiting. They may react to smells around them that others may not notice. You can try reducing use of scented lotions, candles, perfumes in the home, discuss various scents encountered throughout daily activities, move to another area in the room where the scent is less potent, ensure the child that the smell is safe (when appropriate), or keep a preferred smelling item nearby. Identify your child’s cues for when they may be overwhelmed by scent, validate the emotion they may be feeling, and help them to cope by attempting one or more of the above suggestions.
Occupational therapists help children who struggle with identification of smell or reaction to smell when this negatively impacts participation in daily roles and routines
The auditory system is responsible for interpreting all environmental input that allows individuals to hear sounds and noises. The auditory system works closely with the vestibular system to maintain balance and equilibrium that is essential for daily function.
Some signs that a child may be experiencing auditory processing challenges are: that he or she becomes agitated by everyday sounds like a hair dryer or vacuum; they may run away, cry, or cover their ears in response to loud noises; or they may be intrigued or upset by certain noises that may not be noticeable to others. This can be extremely disruptive and unsettling to a child and can have negative effects on their mood, learning, attention, social skills, and daily function. At Kids Thrive Therapy, we provide suggestions, resources, and treatment strategies that can help parents and children understand how to regulate the auditory system.
Gustatory processing is how we perceive the sense of taste. It is the fun sensory system that allows us to enjoy the flavor of food! Taste is perceived by chemical receptors on our tongue, and includes sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. (Fun fact: each flavor is processed on a different portion of our tongue.) ⠀
If an individual is over-responsive to gustatory sensation, they may reject certain foods and tastes. If an individual is under-responsive to gustatory sensation, they may experience slower responses to taste. Both sets of dysfunction can potentially contribute to loss of appetite, reduced diversity in nutrient intake, weight loss, and decreased quality of life.
At Kids Thrive Therapy, we maximize the functioning of the entire sensory system, using playful interventions to support the gustatory system.
Our eyes and brain work together to help us process and understand what we see in our surrounding environment. We have special receptors, called photoreceptors, that take energy from light and transform it into a special signal for the brain to process and interpret! The visual system consists of many important components such as, visual perception, visual discrimination, visual acuity, visual memory, visual form constancy, and visual motor skills. These skills are essential for developing functional participation in age appropriate tasks for our kiddos!⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
A child who is hypersensitive or over-responsive to visual stimuli may be distracted by visual stimuli in the classroom/environment, may be extremely sensitive to bright lights, or they may avoid eye contact. A child who is hypo-sensitive or under-responsive to visual stimuli may have difficulty completing puzzles, word searches, or finding items in a messy drawer. These children may also have trouble visually tracking a ball for catching. ⠀⠀⠀
Occupational therapists utilize several strategies to help children who are hyper-responsive to visual stimuli such as: creating a clutter-free environment, using dim lighting, and assessing visual processing skills and needs. For children who are hypo-responsive to visual stimuli, occupational therapists can help provide a lot of opportunities for visual stimulation using a sensory-based approach.
Vestibular processing is how we perceive movement. Am I upside down or right side up? Am I moving fast or slow? Forward or back?⠀⠀⠀⠀
The vestibular system is a part of the inner ear and senses the position of our head and body. It assists us with balance, spatial orientation and coordination and it gives us gravitational security. Like the other sensory systems, one can be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to vestibular inputs.
Examples of hypersensitivity include fear of feet off the ground, prefers more sedentary play or gets dizzy easily. Examples of hyposensitivity includes one who seeks movement, loves to swing and spin, doesn’t get dizzy, always running around and likes to hang upside down.⠀⠀
Examples of vestibular activities include swings, slides, trampoline, merry go round, dancing, somersaults, spinning, riding a bike, swimming, bouncing on a ball or rolling down a hill…the ideas are endless! OT’s at Kids Thrive Therapy work with children and their families to provide the ‘just right’ level of vestibular input.
The proprioceptive sensory system receives information through sensations from the muscles and joints. Proprioceptive receptors sense the location, positioning, orientation and movement of body parts. This sensory system provides us with information regarding positioning of body parts in relation to each other. We have proprioceptive receptors all over our bodies. Just like the other senses, an individual can be hypersensitive, or hyposensitive to proprioceptive input. When an individual is hypersensitive to proprioceptive input, they maybe observed holding their body in odd positions or have difficulty manipulating small objects. Someone who is hyposensitive to proprioceptive input may present as floppy and be observed propping themselves up on furniture and others. They may appear clumsy, bumping into objects and others. A few signs of a child seeking proprioceptive input include:
Enjoys rough play ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Writes/draws with excessive force ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Walks on tiptoes (may also be indicative of other sensory, musculoskeletal, or neurologic impairment)
Prefers running, jumping and crashing styles of play ⠀⠀⠀
Frequent biting/chewing ⠀
Proprioceptive input can be very calming and organizing to the brain. This input is often also referred to as heavy work or deep pressure. Occupational therapists at KTT work with families to utilize proprioceptive experiences to promote self-regulation. For more ideas for proprioceptive input reach out to your child’s OT! ⠀⠀
Interoception, the body’s 8th sense, is a lesser known sensory system, which we often take for granted!⠀⠀
Interoception is the ability to sense, process and react to the bodies internal signals, including heart rate, muscle tension, a growling stomach, heavy breathing or a dry mouth. These signals provide us with information regarding body sensations such as hunger, thirst, temperature, need to use the bathroom, pain and more. Our ability to interpret this information allows us to take action and respond to our body’s physiological needs. Through this action we are able to promote emotional regulation and participation in daily activity.
Occupational therapists at KTT utilize an Interoception Awareness Curriculum to work with children to develop upon their interoceptive awareness. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Eating & Sensory Processing
Did you know that eating is a multi-step task? Did you also know that we eat with our entire sensory system? We need our vision to see the food, our olfactory system to smell it, our tactile system to feel food on our hands and in our mouths, our auditory system to experience the sounds of crunching and chewing, and of course our gustatory sensation to taste it! Interoception provides us with awareness of internal signals for hunger and thirst! We even need our proprioceptive and vestibular systems to maintain our position in the chair, and to help us maintain awareness of the location of our tongue and the food in our mouths. ⠀
Disordered sensory processing in any one of the systems can affect the occupation of eating. This could potentially contribute to picky eating and problem feeding. When we address feeding, we help our kiddos process the sensations throughout their entire sensory system in order to build skills towards age-appropriate feeding! If you have concerns about your child’s feeding and participation in mealtime, please reach out to us to schedule an evaluation. ⠀⠀⠀
Attention & Sensory Processing
Did you know all of these sensory systems impact your child’s attention!?!
Many times we hear people say “My child isn’t listening” but that just means they aren’t using their ears to hear what is being said. The ability to ATTEND entails much more than just our sense of hearing.
Attention includes all our senses. Try sitting still for a minute and think about the environment around you. What do you hear? See? Smell? Taste? Feel? Can you feel the seat you are sitting on? Can you tell what position your body is in? In order to attend to the task in front of you, your body and brain must process all of these senses at one time! That’s a lot! This is why so many of us with sensory processing challenges also have difficulty with attention. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
If the body isn’t registering sensory input at the same threshold as his/her peers and requires more sensory input to “feel”, then try adding some movement to the task (i.e. wiggle seat, cushion, swing, weighted lap pad/shoulder pad). If the body is more sensitive with a lower threshold for sensory information, then try decreasing the amount of sensory input (i.e. headphones, dimmed lights or wear a hat).⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
An occupational therapist can help develop an appropriate “sensory diet” that can help alert or calm the sensory system and in return improve attention.
Learning & Sensory Processing
The Pyramid of Learning (Williams and Shellenberger, 1996) highlights the importance of our sensory system. Maturation and integration of our sensory systems lay the foundation for motor, perceptual, and cognitive development. Often, when there is disorganization within the sensory systems causing either over or under-responsivity within the Visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, vestibular, proprioceptive, and/or interoceptive systems, this leads to a disruption in skill development of higher level centers. OT's evaluate developmental skills, behavior, and level of independence in age-expected activities, roles, and routines. We use sensory-based strategies to treat the underlying sensory systems and performance areas impacted by them. Growth through each level of the pyramid is dependent upon a solid foundation of the level below it.