When we are talking about sensory processing, this describes how we perceive and interact with the world. For example, when you step outside of your home in the morning, you are faced with a variety of sensory inputs. Maybe the sun is shining bright, you can smell fresh flowers from your yard, and the temperature is a bit chilly. These are just three potential sensations you are experiencing in this situation.
The term “sensory processing disorder” describes a diagnosis where someone has difficulty processing the sensory information entering their brain.
The human body is complex and is made up of eight sensory systems. These systems work both independently and together to ensure the body is processing sensory information from the environment. Let’s take a brief look at what each sensory system involves.
● Tactile- this involves the sense of touch and experiencing different textures
● Visual- this is our sense of sight
● Gustatory- this system is involved in the sense of taste
● Olfactory- this is our sense of smell
● Auditory- this is our ability to hear and process sounds
● Vestibular- the receptors in this sensory system are located in the inner ear and have a role in balance and coordination of movement
● Proprioceptive- Proprioceptors are cells found in the muscles, tendons, and joints in the body. These cells help us understand where our body is in space. For example, if we are raising our hand, the sense of proprioception helps us understand that our arm is above our head
● Interoception- this sensory system is involved with having an awareness of internal body feelings. For example, being able to sense when your heart is beating fast or feeling hunger.
If a child has a diagnosis of SPD, then one or more of these sensory systems are not functioning optimally. As noted above, someone with SPD will have "out of the ordinary" responses to sensory stimuli that most would process as normal.
Here are some ways in which we can recognize if a child is having sensory processing difficulties.
● May engage in rough play, such as kicking, rolling, hitting objects, etc.
● May appear hyperactive and have difficulty sitting in one position
● May appear to have a lack of body awareness
● Chews on objects or clothing
● Can appear clumsy, might often bump into walls or other people
● May dislike certain clothing fabrics, textures, or tags
● Avoids loud music or loud noises
● Is bothered by certain tastes or food textures
● Doesn’t like to engage in movement, may withdraw from physical activities
● May exhibit poor fine motor skills (writing, fastening buttons and zippers, tying shoelaces, etc.)
● May appear aloof or as if they are unaware of their surroundings
● May take a while to respond to their name or respond to directions
● Might have difficulty maintaining correct posture and may use excessive force when giving hugs, writing, throwing balls, etc.
So what do we do if a child shows any of these sensory processing disorder symptoms?
If a child is exhibiting any of the symptoms discussed above, it is important to seek out a formalized evaluation in order to receive a diagnosis. An occupational therapist (OT) is specifically trained to evaluate sensory processing concerns and can work individually with each child and family to implement treatment options.
● Working one-on-one with an OT in a sensory gym.
● Establishing a sensory diet (prescribed routine of activities) in order to satisfy sensory needs throughout the day.
● Making accommodations to established routines in order to better serve sensory needs. For example, incorporating a five-minute movement break in the classroom before a seated activity.
● Incorporating sensory supports like a weighted blanket, hammock swing, wiggle seating options etc. into the child’s daily routine as a way to meet sensory needs.
The symptoms associated with SPD can have a huge impact on the lives of children and their families. Sensory Processing Disorder is real, even though it is "hidden". With this assurance, we can become better advocates for our child at school and within the community.