covering the basics
If you’re looking for more information after reviewing this page, check out the Sensory Simplified blog series we’ve created to lay it all out for you. Have some questions or concerns of your own? Schedule a free consultation here.
“Sensory” - it’s a loaded term that parents may hear after enrolling their children in daycare, or when consulting their pediatrician about something at their child’s check-up. Sensory processing differences may result in things such as feeding difficulties, decreased engagement or play skills, trouble tolerating a variety of textures, having a high pain tolerance, getting upset with small changes in routine, resisting certain types of clothing or being constantly on the move. Without further explanation, the idea of "sensory processing differences" can sound rather ominous and anxiety-inducing.
But what might any of this even be referring to? Does having trouble with any of these activities indicate anything? Is it even a cause for concern?
Simply put, sensory processing refers to how our nervous system receives messages from the environment, processes them, and responds to them. Our responses may differ depending upon our sensory thresholds.
While we all have our unique sensory preferences (some of us hate the sound of styrofoam rubbing together, while others can’t stand the feeling of velvet), it is when a person's sensory processing differences are impacting their participation in everyday activities that it might be time for an occupational therapy consultation.
The sensory processing system of the brain is driven by eight senses. Yep - eight! Through these 8 channels: visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, proprioceptive, vestibular and interoception, our brain receives, processes and responds to the things we experience. You can get a better idea of each system by hovering over the graphics below.
Curious to learn why a child may respond positively or negatively to certain sensory input? Check out the “H2o analogy” in our blog post here that helps explain it all.
Input we receive through our visual systems via our eyes. This involves skills such as visual discrimination, visual perceptual skills and visual motor skills.
Sensory processing differences may look like a child being overly interested in moving objects, or having trouble distinguishing between numbers and letters.
This is not the same as visual acuity (how well you see).
Input we receive through our sensation of touch. This can be light touch, deep pressure, pain, vibration or temperature.
Sensory processing differences can include seeking out tactile input or being highly sensitive to it.
Tactile aversion may look like a child refusing to wear certain clothes or touching messy mediums or foods.
Input we receive through the receptors in our mouth.
This system plays an important role in eating and is responsible for processing sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy flavors.
Over-responsive taste buds may result in feeding challenges.
Input we receive through our ears that helps us interpret information that is heard.
Sensory processing difficulties may look like a child not tolerating noisy environments or being easily distracted by sounds.
A child may seek out auditory input by singing to themselves or banging toys to make noise.
Input we receive through smell receptors in our nose. The olfactory system helps us determine if we favor or despise perfume, if we detect smoke or if certain foods are appealing or not to us.
This system also plays an important role in feeding, as the olfactory system is responsible for over 75% of what we consider to be "taste"
This system is responsible for processing movement (are we going forwards or backwards?) and change in head position (are we upside down or right-side up?)
Often children we refer to as "sensory seekers" are seeking out input from this system. They're the ones we think of who can't stop moving/spinning/dancing.
We receive this input through our bones and joint. This input lets us gauge how hard we need to push to get the door open, and strongly relates to body awareness - like pointing to our nose even if our eyes are closed. Proprioception is the most calming form of sensory input.
Hint: think weighted blankets!
This system is responsible for the awareness of our internal sensations, such as when we are hungry or full, when we need to use the bathroom, or that our head is aching.
Interoception plays an important role in self-regulation and potty training.