What is Sensory Processing

Sensory Processing - What is it? [PDF 245KB]

All of the information about the world comes to us through our sensory systems. We are all aware of the senses involved in taste, smell, touch and sound, however our nervous system also senses touch, movement, force of gravity and the position of our body parts.  All of these systems are critical in helping us function in everyday life.

We use sensory processing to respond to our environment.  For example, if a building catches on fire, we hear the fire alarms, smell the smoke, feel the heat of the fire and feel frightened which will cause us to run out of the building.

Sensory processing is also used to help us get ready for activities.  For example:

Sensory processing is an uncontrolled response.  We cannot choose to prefer or dislike various sensations. A person’s sensory processing style cannot be changed. We can help people develop strategies for coping with different sensory stimulation but we cannot change their underlying sensory profile.

The Sensory Systems and how they help us

Touch: The Tactile Sense

Tactile sensation makes it possible for us to do a range of activities including:

We receive tactile input during a range of different activities including bathing (the feel of water and different temperatures), dressing (the feel of different fabrics such as soft and rough fabrics), playing (toys with different textures), at school (feel of the chair, pencil, paper) and eating (feeling of different textured foods on the hands and in the mouth).

Movement: The Vestibular Sense

The sense of movement is controlled by our vestibular system that is in our middle ear. The vestibular system responds to body movement through space and changes in head position.  This system is used every time we move our head, change position, when we play on equipment such as swings and trampolines, when we use lifts and elevators and when we take off and set down in aeroplanes.

It has 3 purposes:

Body Position: Proprioception

This is closely related to the vestibular sense, and is known as proprioception. This sense gives us awareness of our body position and how much force we are making with movements.  It contributes to motor control and motor planning and allows us to skilfully move our arms and legs without looking at every movement.

What can go wrong?

The sensory systems are very complex, and begin to function very early in life.  The senses do work separately, but interact with each other in order to allow a person to make an appropriate response.

With any system things can occasionally get jumbled, and not work in the way that they were originally designed too.  These systems can mature at different rates, and one of two things usually happens.

  1. People become overly sensitive to touch, movement, sights or sounds.  This refers to a person becoming overly aroused/excited by a sensation that most other people would tolerate.
  2. People are under-reactive to sensory stimulation.  This refers to a person who is generally unaware or does not react to certain sensory input, and may as a result seek out further sensory stimulation.

As a result of this, their behaviour and responses to different stimulation will be different to what you might expect.

But what does this mean?

People with sensory processing difficulties vary in the extent to which they are affected and the sensory systems that are involved.  These difficulties can impact on behaviour during functional, everyday activities.  Generally people who are under reactive to sensory stimulation will tend to seek out extra sensory inputand those who are oversensitivewill tend to avoid or be defensive of sensory input. This defensiveness may result in irritability, crying, or withdrawal during these sensory experiences.

Behaviours that may be seen when the Sensory Processing systems are not working properly

The following behaviours may indicate difficulties with sensory processing:

Movement (The Vestibular System)

Body Awareness (Proprioception)

Touch (The Tactile System)

Sensory OverloadCrying

A child may experience sensory overload when they are unable to process sensory input effectively or when there is too much input to be processed all at once. Overload behaviours may include:

General Ideas to Manage Sensory Processing Difficulties

As a parent, carer or teacher, the most important thing you can do is to try to understand how the sensory systems influence your child’s behaviour.

Basic Management Strategies

What to do if Sensory Overload Occurs