Hello, TAH world! We are going to kick off my blogging career by discussing a popular and sometimes confusing topic- sensory processing. I have been an occupational therapist for 8 years, and this is a still a topic that I myself am continuing to learn about. I actually just attended a course last week on sensory processing and there is still so much more to learn.
This is the first post in a series of posts that will highlight basic information regarding sensory processing. This topic is complex and can be challenging to fully understand. For the purposes of this blog, I am going to try to explain things as simply and concretely as possible. If you’d like to learn more in depth on some of these topics, the books I’ve linked to at the bottom of the page are a great place to start. In this series, I will also be providing some very general tips and strategies that tend work with students who have certain sensory preferences. As we know though, every child is different, and the information contained in this blog and future blog posts should not replace a consult with your child’s OT.
Now that we got that out of the way – let’s take some time to discuss some basic concepts regarding sensory processing and our sensory systems so we are all on the same page going forward.
What is sensory processing?
Sensory processing refers to a person’s ability to take in information from the senses, organize and interpret that information and then use it to produce the appropriate response. You may also hear this referred to as sensory integration. We are all constantly bombarded by sensory input throughout our day, and our brain works hard to help us make sense of it. This typically happens automatically and efficiently. For example, if you happen to step on a Lego while walking through your living room barefoot, your tactile system sends a message to your brain (‘ouch!’) and you then quickly lift your foot off the Lego.
Why is it important?
Think of our sensory systems as important foundations which we develop through our experiences starting at a very young age. For example, we learn our sense of body in space when crawling or climbing on the playground. We develop our tactile system when allowed to explore different textures and engage in messy play. Our sense of movement is developed by being rocked or running. If a student has difficulty making sense of sensory information and putting it all together, he or she will have difficulty performing many higher level skills which are important for school and daily life, such as regulating emotions, engaging with peers, playing, fine/gross motor tasks, paying attention and performing important routines. This is why sensory processing matters.
The Sensory Systems
The brain receives information via 7 (yes, 7!) sensory systems. Some of them you will instantly recognize, and others will be less familiar. There is actually an 8th sensory system related to internal sensations such as hunger and thirst, but for the purposes of this post we will stick with these 7 systems.
We will go more in depth into each of these sensory systems in upcoming blog posts. I just want you to have the basic vocabulary as we continue to work through this topic.
First, the five familiar senses we all know and love. These systems take in information from the outside world:
- Tactile System – sense of touch
- Auditory System – sense of hearing
- Visual System – sense of sight
- Olfactory System – sense of smell
- Gustatory System – sense of taste
Most people have never heard of the next two sensory systems. In the OT world, we refer to these as the ‘hidden’ sensory systems. They take in information from inside our bodies:
- Vestibular System – sense of balance and motion
- Proprioception – sense of body in space
We all have sensory preferences!
Now, think about yourself in the context of the sensory systems listed above. What type of sensory input is calming to you? What is upsetting? How do you manage your sensory preferences? Based on your sensory preferences, you may seek out certain sensations or you may try to avoid some. I tend to seek out gum or crunchy foods and enjoy the feel of my stretchy leggings. I dislike the sensation of spinning, so I avoided the teacups at Disney World this summer and sent my husband to ride them with my son instead #momoftheyear.
Think especially about how you feel when you experience a less preferred sensory input. Just the thought of my sensory dislikes makes me shudder. Our students with sensory processing challenges or less mature nervous systems are feeling the same way we are when faced with those sensory dislikes, but the feeling is probably magnified x100. They also likely do not have effective strategies to manage this non-preferred sensory input like we do. They may produce a less functional response which can disrupt their daily life. I’m sure you are already thinking about some of your students.
Sensory processing is everywhere
When we break down a task, even though we may not think of it as a sensory-based task to begin with, we quickly realize how the different sensory systems can be so important. Let’s think about a typical classroom task – completing a worksheet. During this activity, a student needs to be able to sit up in a chair and hold a writing utensil. We probably want the student to listen to our directions and copy something from the board. A student therefore needs to efficiently process proprioceptive (body in space), tactile, auditory and visual input. Now, if a child is having difficulty completing a worksheet, it may not solely be due to sensory processing challenges, but we certainly need to consider this when problem-solving.
So, in summary – sensory processing is an important brain function. We all process sensory information, we all have sensory preferences and we all use strategies to help manage our sensory preferences. When our sensory systems work together efficiently and we have strategies to manage our sensory needs across environments, life is good. However, we have all seen or worked with students who have difficulty making sense of sensory input and who do not have effective strategies in place to manage this. A student may crave too much sensory input, have difficulty filtering out unimportant sensory input or not register sensory input effectively. When sensory processing challenges are chronic and impact a child’s ability to perform important daily tasks, we need to take a closer look at how to help this child. More on this in the next post.
Want to learn more?
Additional References utilized: American Occupational Therapy Association (2017). FAQ about Ayres Sensory Integration (fact sheet).
Special thanks to my teacher and therapist friends for helping me gather photos for this post!