Sensory Processing

As a natural part of typical development, children process, interpret, and respond to sensory information. Sensations work together to provide the body with a descriptive picture of the world and our place in it. The integration of senses helps an individual to understand who they are, where they are, and what is happening around them. Without successful integration of the senses it is difficult for a person to interpret a situation accurately and make an appropriate response.

When occupational therapy practitioners address the sensory needs of individuals, they consider the registration, modulation, organization, and interpretation of information gained through the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and perception of movement and position. Occupational therapy practitioners recognize that well-regulated sensory systems can contribute to important developmental outcomes in social-emotional, physical, communication, self-care, cognitive, and adaptive skill development.

Five to fifteen percent of children in the general population demonstrate difficulties with sensory modulation (SMD) (Reynolds, et al, 2008). For many of these children, occupational therapy can help. There is a growing body of scientific evidence to support the importance of the sensory systems in human behavior and occupational performance (Baranek et al, 2002; Poulsen et al, 2007; White et al, 2007). Research has also provided indirect support for the use of a sensory integrative approach to intervention (Baranek, 2002; Miller & Schoen, 2007).

Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can affect people in only one sense–for example, just touch or just sight or just movement–or in multiple senses. A person with SPD may over-respond to sensation and find clothing, physical contact, light, sound, food, or other sensory input to be unbearable. Another might under-respond and show little or no reaction to stimulation, even pain or extreme hot and cold. Posture and motor skills can be affected in children whose processing of sensory messages from muscles and joints are impaired. Some children can frequently seek out sensory information and appear to always be “on-the-go” and often described as hyperactive.

Information gathered from the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation.

Signs of a Sensory Issue:

  • Overly sensitive or under reactive to touch, movement, sights, or sounds
  • Unusually high or low activity level
  • Easily distracted; poor attention to tasks
  • Delays in speech, motor skills, or academic achievement
  • Coordination problems; appears clumsy or awkward
  • Poor body awareness
  • Difficulty learning new tasks or figuring out how to play with unfamiliar toys
  • Difficulty with tasks that require using both hands at the same time
  • Appears to be disorganized most of the time
  • Difficulty with transitions between activities or environments
  • Immature social skills
  • Impulsivity or lack of self-control
  • Difficulty calming self once “wound up”
  • Has difficulty sitting still/focusing at school or at home
  • Does not tolerate getting messy/does not notice when messy
  • Has difficulty with changes to their schedule or routine
  • Has difficulty calming / self-regulating
  • Is fearful of playground equipment
  • Extreme resistance to grooming or bathing activities
  • Crossing Midline