Understanding Sensory Processing
Sensory information can be powerful:
- A familiar scent can trigger memories;
- A puppy’s kisses can spark laughter and a smile;
- A hug from a parent can halt crying after a skinned knee;
- Sounds of sirens alert us to danger, igniting panic or valiant action.
How does the outside world enter our brain and get understood? How do we process sensory information?
We experience the world through our senses
When our sensory systems functioning properly, the information comes from the outside world though our sensory systems, through our nervous system, and into our brain.
There are actually seven sensory systems. Five of them we are familiar with: touch, smell, hearing, taste, and sight. But there are (at least!) two lesser-known systems that are important as we interact with our environment.
The Vestibular system is located in the inner ear and is responsible for maintaining balance, coordinating movements, and sensing motion and gravity. This system comes into play with activities like riding a bike.
The Proprioceptive system provides feedback to our muscles and joints about how much or how little force is needed. This system helps you pour a cup of milk without spilling.
Intact sensory processing involves the ability to take in sensory experiences, prioritize them, and then use that information to successfully learn, socialize, and engage in daily routines.
What happens when our sensory systems are not working as they should?
When our sensory systems aren’t working the way they should, it can be overwhelming. Here is a simple exercise to help explain what sensory processing disorder might feel like:
- Picture yourself driving in your car;
- listening to your child’s favorite Disney soundtrack;
- carrying on a conversation with your spouse;
- while the GPS reroutes you through an unfamiliar area;
- glancing in the rear-view mirror;
- changing lanes on the highway;
- it begins to pour;
- the windshield is fogging;
- you realize you just missed your exit.
We’ve all been there on occasion, right? That feeling of driving through a thunderstorm. Now imagine if that stress, panic, and tension existed for each and every drive, or even for each and every minute of your day. For many kids with sensory processing challenges, this is their “normal”.
Understanding Sensory Processing in Children
Sensory processing difficulties can involve just one sensory system or span across several systems. When we talk about sensory processing in children, we have to remember that they often do not have the tools, the words, or the perspective to be able to verbalize how sensory experiences make them feel. It can often take some detective work from both the parents and the occupational therapist to identify where the sensory breakdown is occurring.
Does your child interpret some sensory stimuli too strongly? Maybe he perceives the sound of the dishwasher as unpleasant when doing homework in the kitchen or becomes distressed when playing in the sand. Does your child seem to miss some sensory stimuli altogether? Maybe you have to say her name several times to get her attention or she appears not to notice crumbs on her face while eating dinner. Are there times when your child seems to be unaware of his body, accident-prone, or clumsy? Maybe he frequently trips on the sidewalk or plays too roughly with his siblings.
As we start to layer on our current climate (global pandemic), new demands (distance learning anyone?), and less structure (no more after-school activities), the more you may see ways sensory processing impacts your child. That is one downside of our current reality. The upside is we now have the time and space to more closely observe how children react to sensory experiences. We can use the resources of our homes and the flexibility of our schedules to isolate and identify the triggers for our children. We can carefully construct an environment to support them.
Through thoughtful observation and consideration, we can help them, and lead them out of this thunderstorm.
If you want to learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder, please email us. We are always happy to help in any way we can.