February 16, 2021
Sensory processing refers to how we take in sensory information from our body and environment, organize and make sense of this information, and respond. The sensory systems include touch (tactile), taste (gustatory), smell (olfactory), hearing (auditory), and vision in addition to vestibular and proprioception. Vestibular receptors are located in our ears and take in information about how we move through space and play a key role in balance; think of it like an internal GPS— are we moving fast, slow, forward, backward, upside down? Proprioception receptors are in our muscles and joints, taking in information as we move parts of our body.
Everyone has sensory preferences and non-preferences, even adults! Do you like to explore various textures with your hands or often avoid getting messy? Do you love the thrill of roller coaster rides or are they just too much? While people may be exposed to the same sensory input, the way our bodies process and make sense of this input often varies.
It’s also important to know that sensory input is cumulative. Did you know that sensory processing and preferences can change throughout the day? For example, you may use upbeat, loud music in the morning to help you wake up. However, after a long day at work or taking care of your children, you may yearn for a break of complete silence. The same concept applies to your child. What might be tolerated sometimes may result in meltdowns others, especially after an over-stimulating day at school or out in the community.
While many adults have learned ways to navigate their daily life with their sensory preferences, children’s systems are still developing. Difficulties in sensory processing may result in: frequently seeking out, avoiding, missing, or overly-attending to sensory input. Sensory processing challenges may also result in poor motor skills and performance. The overall key is function. While it’s typical to have sensory preferences and non-preferences, if these start to affect a child’s ability to function and participate in one or more contexts (home, school, community), it’s time to seek help.
Here are some things that you might notice in your child: difficulty sitting still with frequent fidgeting, strong avoidance of certain clothing, difficulty tolerating certain sounds, being in constant motion, limiting foods in one’s diet, clumsy or injury-prone, or difficulty with changes to his or her daily routine. Sometimes it may look like frequent meltdowns with difficulty as parents understanding the source.
Occupational therapy can help address these concerns through identifying and discerning responses to each sensory system, expanding a child’s comfort level with more challenging sensory information, and/or incorporating appropriate sensory input throughout their day. Your occupational therapist will provide an individualized plan to address sensory processing challenges and help your child better function across a variety of activities and environments in his or her daily life.