Sensory processing is a critical part of every child’s development and is a function of the brain that stays with us for our whole life. Find out exactly what sensory processing is and when to be concerned about sensory issues.
Have you been hearing the term sensory processing and wondering what it is? Most people have no idea what sensory processing is, but it’s something that every human being relies on every single hour of the day. And, when it isn’t working efficiently it can cause all sorts of challenges and disturbances in a child or adult’s life.
As an occupational therapist, sensory processing is my specialty.
So let’s dive into everything you need to know about sensory processing…
What is Sensory Processing?
We must begin with, what does sensory processing mean? Sensory processing is a function or process of the brain that receives, sorts, and decides how and if to respond to a multitude of sensations from the 8 senses that include vision, sound, smell, taste, touch, proprioception (body awareness), interoception (internal sensations), and vestibular (movement).
Also referred to as Sensory Integration, this process allows children and adults to behave in expected and meaningful ways in their various environments throughout the day.
What is an Example of Sensory Processing?
The brain’s sensory processing is ALWAYS at work.
For instance, as a child sits at a desk at school their sensory processing is sorting out the sensations of the way the chair feels under them, the clothes on their body, the smell of lunch being cooked down the hall, the sound of the teachers voice, and the light that’s flickering overhead in the corner.
Often, many of these sensations are ignored like the way the clothing feels on our body or the slow flicker of the light, while other’s are given attention like the teacher’s voice and the smell of lunch which results in learning what is being taught and a hungry grumbling tummy.
However, sensory processing is unique to every child, to every person, because it’s based on neurological connections. How one child perceives and responds to sensory input can be quite different than the next child and the child after that.
For example, a different child might be highly distracted by the flickering light, they can’t stop noticing it. Their sensory processing is choosing to register that sensory information.
Or, they might be bothered by the jeans their mom made them wear to school. They feel scratchy and uncomfortable. Again, sensory processing is allowing that sensation to register.
In both of these last two examples of sensory processing this can cause a child to struggle to pay attention and learn. If these challenges arise day after day kids often get labeled as “bad” or “difficult,” but that isn’t what’s going on at all.
Some Kids have Sensory Processing Issues…
Sometimes these differences in sensory processing, or what you can think of as neurodivergence are referred to as “sensory issues,” not my favorite term, but it does indicate that some kids sensory processing doesn’t have the typical response we’d expect.
While different is good, “sensory issues” can become problematic when they interfere with a child’s daily life.
If the sensory system is over-responding, under-responding, or seeking more sensory experiences then kids can struggle to pay attention, social interactions, learn, sit at the table, or sleep.
Over-responding sensory systems often cause kids to have sensitivities, sometimes extreme to touching different textures, smells, tastes, loud noises, bright lights, or movement such as swinging or rough housing.
Under-responding sensory systems (also called low registration) often leave kids distracted, lethargic, and “zoned out”.
And, kids that seek sensations often never stop moving, are labeled “wild”, make big messes, lick odd things, smell everything in their environment, and constantly touch everything!
Sensory processing is a spectrum so each child can fall at varying degrees of any of these types of sensory processing difficulties. In fact, all of us have some tendencies in these areas, it becomes a problem or is considered a neurological disorder when sensory processing has a big impact on everyday life in a negative way.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?
In which case an individual might have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). While SPD isn’t an official diagnosis that is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) that clinicians use to diagnose, it is a widely accepted disorder by occupational therapists and various other health professionals.
Right now occupational therapists typically evaluate children for sensory processing disorder. Some symptoms of SPD are:
- Impulsively moving often and/or dangerously
- High sensitivities to lights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes, or movement
- Lethargy despite being well rested and nourished
- Poor attention and following direction as a result of sensory processing
- Poor following directions as a result of sensory processing
- Experiences sensory overload or meltdowns from too much sensory stimulation on a regular basis
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep as a result of sensory processing
Learn about more symptoms in 33 Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder.
Also, know that there are several other sensory integration disorders such as sensory-based motor disorder and sensory discrimination disorder.
Causes of SPD and Sensory Issues
Some risk factors for SPD are birth complications, drug/alcohol exposure in utero, and premature birth because the sensory system is one of the last to develop in utero.
However, many kids have SPD that don’t have any of these risk factors. Some theorize environmental toxins, but we don’t have any definitive evidence.
Does Having Sensory Issues Mean a Child Has Autism or ADHD?
Sensory issues or SPD are a separate neurological difficulty, and many children struggle with sensory challenges that don’t have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, it seems that at least 80% of kids with Autism also have a comorbidity with SPD, and 40% of kids with ADHD.
It’s common to see these diagnoses together, but they are each their own stand alone neurological diagnosis.
How to Help Kids with SPD and Sensory Issues: Treatment Options
Kids that have Sensory Processing Disorder, or any sensory issues that are impacting their life may qualify for occupational therapy, even more specifically sensory integration therapy, which is done through a specially trained occupational therapist.
This therapy usually takes place once a week and works to create more efficient neurological connections and pathways that change an individual’s sensory processing.
Young children will often see the quickest results, as their brains are more plastic, or malleable. However, it is still possible to see these changes in older children as well.
Another treatment option is utilizing a sensory diet on a daily basis to help your child managing their various sensory challenges throughout the day. This is usually set up by an occupational therapist, but it’s important that the sensory diet is effective and able to be managed by parents.
Inside our RISE with Sensory program we teach parents a 4 step formula for creating their own sensory diet and adjusting as needed daily and over time. You can learn some beginning steps in our free workshop here.
What Happens if Kids Don’t Get Treated for Sensory Processing Difficulties?
Unfortunately, because SPD isn’t an official diagnosis it does often run under the radar for some doctors, and kids might miss getting diagnosed. In this case, kids will face challenges and probably confusion about why their body or distraction seems to be working against them.
They may continue to struggle with learning, social skills, paying attention, severe picky eating, and difficulty sleeping.
Some kids will devise clever solutions and find ways to minimize their sensitivities or get their needs met with movement.
Telling Your Child About Sensory Processing
No matter what type of sensory processing needs your child has, it’s helpful to explain sensory processing to them. Begin by telling them that sensory processing is something that happens in the brain and that it’s job is to help us sort through all the different sensations we experience and list some examples.
Next, you’ll want to give some examples of sensory processing like I did above and then share a personal example of a sensation you like or dislike. Here’s a helpful video you can show them:
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Help create more awareness about sensory processing and self advocacy in kids by clicking through on the video above and passing it to your friends and family!
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Davies, P.L. & Gavin, W.J. (2007). Validating the diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorders using EEG technology. Am J Occup Ther, 61(2), 176-189. DOI: 10.5014/ajot.61.2.176
Easterbrooks-Dick, O., May-Benson, T., & Teasdale, A. (2020). What’s the Prognosis? A Longitudinal Follow-Up of Children With Sensory Processing Challenges 8 to 32 Years Later. Am J Occup Ther, 74(4_Suppl_1), 7411520507p1. DOI: 10.5014/ajot.2020.74S1-PO9803
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Miller, L. J., Anzalone, M. E., Lane, S. J., Cermak, S. A., & Osten, E. T. (2007). Concept evolution in sensory integration: A proposed nosology for diagnosis. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61(2), 135–142. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.61.2.135
Sensory Integration and the Child Jean A. Ayers (Western Psychological Services 1994)
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 18 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.