Sensory Processing-Understanding the Basics

In our fast-paced daily lives, the ability to process sensory information effortlessly is like having an internal compass that guides us through daily life. For many of us, this happens automatically. We hear a car honking, and we look towards the sound; we feel the grass under our feet, grounding us in the moment. Yet, this seamless integration of our senses – from the traditional five we all know, vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste, to the lesser-discussed but equally important proprioception (sense of body position), vestibular (sense of balance), and interoception (internal sense) – is a complex dance of neurological processes. It provides us with essential information about our surroundings and ourselves, enabling us to effectively and efficiently interact and engage with the world around us.  Let’s explore the basics of sensory processing.

The 8 Sensory Processing Systems

In school, we all learn about the body’s five primary sense systems. But, thanks to the work of Jane Ayers, Lucy Jane Miller, and other expert occupational therapists, we have come to learn the importance of three other systems.  For a more detailed explanation, check out the Star Institute for Sensory Processing. Here is a quick explanation of the role of each system:

  • Hearing: The auditory system processes and interprets sound information. It allows us to discriminate between background and foreground sounds.
  • Vision: The visual system brings information from the environment into the brain through the eyes. It allows us to perceive and interpret the visual world, including detecting color, brightness, form, location, and motion.
  • Smell: The olfactory system drives our sense of smell important to eating and enhancing pleasure of taste. But, it is also alerting to what you should or should not eat.
  • Taste: The gustatory system provides information about the foods and liquids we taste.
  • Touch: The tactile system processes information from sensory receptors on the skin. It’s responsible for detecting temperature, pain, pressure, vibration, texture, and contributes to understanding the position of our limbs. It allows us to identify and discriminate between different things we touch.
  • Proprioception: The proprioceptive system gives us information about our muscles and joints. It provides a sense of body awareness and gives us understanding of force/pressure.
  • Vestibular: The vestibular system provides information about movement and position of our head in relation to gravity. It contributes to our balance and orientation in space.
  • Interoception: The interoceptive system provides information about internal sensations. It gives us information about how our body organs feel. Some examples include hunger, thirst, needing to use the bathroom, and heart rate.

Sensory Processing=Building Blocks for Life Skills

Beyond the basic senses, sensory processing lays the foundation for many other skills. It influences everything from motor skills like kicking a ball, to reading and writing, and to delicate tasks such as understanding our emotions and those of others. It’s intertwined with self-care routines, focus and attention, executive functions, postural control and coordination, spatial awareness, communication, understanding and regulating emotions and behaviors, and navigating the complexities of social relationships. Sensory processing is a foundational component in everything we do. When sensory systems are integrated well, one is able to develop higher-level skills and develop a clear understanding of themselves and their world.

When the System is Over-Responsive

However, for some, this system doesn’t operate as smoothly. When sensory processing isn’t working effectively, it can be like trying to drive in pouring rain with the radio on, people in the car talking, and all the while you’re searching for a street that you can’t find. Simple tasks can become overwhelming. The inability to filter incoming sensory information properly can lead to information overload, resulting in frustration, meltdowns, and other significant responses. This isn’t just challenging for the individual experiencing it but also for those around them, trying to understand and support them.

Consider the story of Alex, an energetic 8-year-old with a love for history and dinosaurs. To an outside observer, Alex might seem disinterested during classroom lessons, often gazing out the window or fidgeting with his pencil. However, this perceived inattentiveness is actually a coping mechanism for the overwhelming sensory inputs he encounters daily. The fluorescent lights in the classroom flicker at a frequency that, although imperceptible to most, unsettle Alex. The constant hum of the air conditioning, the shuffle of papers, and the varying pitches of his classmates’ voices create a cacophony that he finds difficult to filter out. This auditory and visual overload makes it challenging for Alex to focus on his teacher’s words, forcing him to begin tuning out the world around him.

When the System is Under-Responsive

For some, the sensory processing challenge doesn’t stem from an overwhelm of sensory information but rather a pronounced lack of it. Sensory input plays a crucial role in orchestrating smooth, coordinated movements and understanding the world arounds us. When this feedback is missing or deficient, it can lead to difficulties across all of the same areas.  This includes executing fine and gross motor skills, distinguishing between various kinds of touch or pressure, and may result in feelings of frustration, tendencies to avoid certain activities, and misunderstandings in social interactions.

Jamie, a spirited 4-year-old, was brought to our clinic due to her struggles with fine motor skills, disruptive behaviors, and difficulties in social situations. At mealtimes, Jamie preferred using her fingers over utensils, displaying resistance when encouraged to use a fork or spoon. This resistance would often escalate to tears and outbursts if attempts to prompt her persisted. Further observations revealed that Jamie did not intentionally seek to disrupt; her reluctance was rooted in her challenges with gripping utensils firmly and manipulating them effectively to eat. Additionally, her tendency to unintentionally bump into peers or knock items over wasn’t deliberate but was indicative of her struggle with understanding her body’s positioning and movement in relation to the space and people around her.

Providing Support through a Sensory Lens

Efficient sensory processing is critical to child development. Differences in sensory processing can contribute to motor, communication, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Recognizing and supporting sensory processing needs is crucial, and this can be addressed through:

  1. Body-Based Strategies: Engaging in activities that provide ‘heavy work’ or deep pressure can be both calming and grounding for some, as well as alerting and informative for others. Play that is highly enriched with sensory stimuli, such as different textures (sand, water, ice cubes, etc..), visuals (bubbles, balloons, etc.), and music can support the development of discrimination skills, attention, and engagement.   Committing to daily time outside. Working these types of activities into your child’s day can be beneficial.
  1. Environmental Strategies: Simple adaptations to one’s environment, like reducing overwhelming sensory stimuli, strategic seating in a classroom, or creating a small, personal space with comforting sensory inputs, can make a world of difference.
  1. Relationship Strategies: We all have our own individual differences in how we process sensory information; every sensory system is unique. Building supportive, understanding relationships that offer acceptance and recognition of sensory needs allows for a safe space for children to tolerate and understand their sensory experiences and gain skills. At times, the sensory needs and sensitivities of the child and the needs of their caregiver can be a mismatch. However, awareness of this can help the caregiver meet their own needs while supporting those of their child.

Wrapping Up Sensory Processing

Understanding the basics of sensory processing sheds light on the incredible choreography happening within us every moment of every day.  Recognizing the nuances of sensory processing differences is pivotal. It allows us to offer targeted support, making the world a more navigable place for those who have sensory processing challenges. Most importantly, it changes the lens in which we view the child.

The path to supporting someone with sensory processing challenges is not always straightforward or easy. At SensAble Kids, we understand these challenges. It’s a journey of understanding, patience, and continuous adjustment. Sometimes, the strategies we think will help may not produce the expected results, or what works one day might not work the next. In these moments, it’s crucial to remember that each person’s sensory experience is unique, and what matters most is our willingness to “try again.”  If you feel the need for expert guidance and support in nurturing your child’s sensory processing abilities, reach out to SensAble Kids today.

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Occupational, Speech, and MNRI Therapy Clinic located in Chicago, IL

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