What is Sensory Processing?

Anna Baker M.A., OTR/L BCP SIPT
Anna Baker M.A., OTR/L BCP SIPT

LKS & Associates
Occupational Therapist

Sensory processing is the ability of the brain to process information received through our senses. Many people think of the five basic senses: vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. Occupational therapists and other professionals with training in sensory processing think about not only the five basic senses but three other senses! These other senses are the body sense, the movement sense, and the internal body sense. 

Body sense refers to information in the muscles and joints that are communicated to the brain. The body sense is important in activities to maintain a body position such as holding a pencil without grasping too loosely or too tightly.  Body sense is often referred to as proprioception. The body sense is used every day in tasks such as using large muscles to maintain a sitting posture to look at a classroom whiteboard.  

The movement sense refers to how the brain processes the movement of the head in space relative to the surroundings and gravity. The movement sense is how you know your body is moving forward or backward as well as whether the body is upside down or right side up.  The movement sense is commonly referred to as the vestibular system.  The movement sense often acts in conjunction with the body sense and vision in activities such as stabilizing the head and eyes to look at the whiteboard and then moving the head back to focus on paper on the tabletop to copy a sentence.

The internal body sense, or interoception, is another important sense to consider because it detects information from inside the body itself. Your internal body sense picks up the tummy being empty or too full, when you are feeling nauseous or your head is hurting, and when you feel your heart is racing due to fear or anger. The internal body sense is very important for childhood tasks such as potty training, self-feeding, and emotional regulation.

What do difficulties in sensory processing look like? 

Sensory processing difficulties can arise from any of the sensory systems and affect a child’s progress in academic settings, social settings, and play settings.  An occupational therapist or other professionals with training in sensory processing can complete observations, parent interviews, and testing to determine specific areas of difficulty for a child.  Concerns with sensory processing can stem from any of the 8 sensory systems or a combination of systems.

Conditions that may show sensory processing difficulties can include developmental delay, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), chromosomal abnormalities, high-risk infants, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and acquired brain injury among other conditions.  

The following are some examples of difficulties with sensory processing in the 8 senses:

Touch/Tactile concerns:  distress with touching wet/slimy/sticky textures; a desire to touch all the objects in a room; a desire to touch other people’s belongings; a child responding negatively to parent/caregiver touch/handling (e.g. hitting when touched unexpectedly), negative responses to clothing types (e.g. refusing to wear jeans), distress with the touch of textured objects, distress with bathing, distress with diaper changes, etc.

Taste/Oral concerns: strong preference for specific food tastes; negative response to tastes of new or different foods; difficulty using utensils; difficulty touching food textures; strong reliance on a pacifier; frequent mouthing of items; difficulties in developmental feeding history; distress with dental procedures or tooth brushing; etc.

Smell/Olfactory concerns:  strong preference for non-food smells; strong preference for caregiver-associated smells; discomfort or negative responses with food smells; frequent seeking of smelling activities prior to a difficult task; etc.

Hearing/Auditory concerns:  sensitivity to speech sounds, sensitivity to loud sounds, sensitivity to unexpected sounds; strong desire to produce self-stimulatory sounds; strong desire to create sounds using objects in the environment; etc.

Vision/Visual concerns: strong preferences for play with specific color items; sunlight or bright light sensitivity; difficulty completing tasks in visually crowded environments; strong preference for specific colors of clothing; sensitivity to specific colors or types of objects; preferences for play with highly colored objects; preference for minimally colored objects; etc.

Body Sense/Proprioception concerns: seeking of pressure via pushing repetitively on body parts (e.g. pushing the hand into the jaw or frequently clapping hands); stomping feet or loud gait when walking; frequent jumping; frequently breaking toys during play; bumping into objects or people in the environment; excessive pressure during handwriting; seeking out opportunities to fall or crash; etc. 

Movement/Vestibular concerns:  frequent spinning/twirling; difficulty staying still/always moving; avoiding movement (strong preference for sedentary or iPad play); fear of traversing a ladder or jungle gym; fear of swings or moving equipment; excessive swinging; etc. 

Internal Body Sense/Interoception: not knowing when hungry; unable to show when not feeling well; difficulty with potty training; frequent grazing instead of consuming meals in entirety; difficulty with emotional expression; etc. 

An occupational therapist or other professional trained in sensory processing can work with a child and caregivers using a variety of techniques such as:

  • Direct treatment using specialized equipment to address a specific sensory system
  • Consultation with caregivers to increase or decrease sensory input in the home or community environments
  • Specific sensory strategies to promote changes in sensory processing skills
  • Home program activities to address sensory functioning in a specific area. 

You can find out more about sensory processing by contacting the LKS office at 310-739-9337 or by email at scheduling@lksandassociates.com. 

Resources

Your 8 Senses. (2021). Retrieved from https://sensoryhealth.org/basic/your-8-senses#f8 

Roley, S.S., Blanche, E.I.,, & Schaaf, R.C.  (2001)  Understanding the Nature of Sensory Integration with Diverse Populations.  Therapy Skill Builders. 

Roley, S.S., Blanche, E.I.,, & Schaaf, R.C.  (2001)  Understanding the Nature of Sensory Integration with Diverse Populations.  Therapy Skill Builders.  

Your 8 Senses. (2021). Retrieved from https://sensoryhealth.org/basic/your-8-senses#f8 

Your 8 Senses. (2021). Retrieved from https://sensoryhealth.org/basic/your-8-senses#f8 

Crowley, C. (2019). Module 3: Identifying Sensory Issues in Early Intervention. In C. Crowley (Ed.), USC Sensory Integration Continuing Education Certificate Program Special Topics in Sensory Integration: Early Intervention. Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University of Southern California.

Blanche, E.I. (2020). Module 2: Sensory Integration Theory as a Guide for Clinical Reasoning.  In Blanche, E.I. (Ed.), USC Sensory Integration Continuing Education Certificate Program Course 2: Sensory Integration Evaluation and Clinical Reasoning: From Identification to Intervention. Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University of Southern California.

Surfus, J.. (2019). Module 4: Sensory Integration and the Impact on Feeding and Mealtime Problems.  In Surfus, J. (Ed.), USC Sensory Integration Continuing Education Certificate Program Special Topic: Sensory-Based Feeding and Eating Challenges. Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University of Southern California.

Bodison, S. (2019). USC Sensory Integration Continuing Education Certificate Program Sensory Integration Treatment: From Intervention to Participation. Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University of Southern California.

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