Sensory processing describes the way each individual interprets their environment through their senses. The sensory input that we receive by interacting with objects through taste, touch, sound, sight, and smell helps us learn more about the world around us. As we grow, our sensory preferences develop and become unique to each person.
Occupational therapists categorize sensory systems into several groups: oral, tactile, auditory, visual, olfactory, proprioception, vestibular, and interoception. Oral input occurs when we brush our teeth or chew gum. Tactile input describes the feeling we receive when we touch objects, such as by feeling velvet fabric, applying lotion, or petting a dog. Sounds from music, white noise, or silence are examples of auditory sensory input. Our olfactory sense allows us to smell scents like candles or food. Visual input describes the way an object or the environment looks and how that can affect our regulation.
The last few sensory categories (proprioception, vestibular and interoception) might sound unfamiliar. Proprioception describes the input that is interpreted by receptors in our muscles and bones which allows us to sense deep pressure or our body’s position in space. Massages, push-ups, and crashing into pillows are all examples of proprioceptive input. Vestibular refers to the way our body interprets movement and includes examples such as swinging, jumping on a trampoline, and rolling or tumbling. Interoception is the body’s internal sense which tells us if we’re thirsty, hungry, hot, cold, or need to use the bathroom.
Our sensory systems are an integral part of learning and nervous system development. In order to develop higher level learning skills, such as gross motor coordination to walk or skip and language skills to communicate, we first need to have regulated sensory systems. If any sensory system is not regulated, then a child’s ability to learn and develop new skills can be impaired as a result. Our sensory systems are the foundation of our nervous system and if that foundation isn’t sound or strong, then learning new things, like how to put on a shirt or tie shoes, becomes extremely difficult.
Sensory regulation results when each of us receives the sensory input that we need from our environment. Some of us need significantly more or less input than others in order to reach an optimal state for learning. For example, some children need a lot of deep pressure and movement in order to focus on tasks; these kids will spend a majority of their day climbing, pushing, pulling, crashing into objects, hugging, squeezing, chewing or sucking on objects, or walking on their toes. This is an example of sensory hyposensitivity, which is when an individual requires more sensory input for regulation.
Other children demonstrate sensory hypersensitivity. For example, they may struggle to tolerate having messy hands (e.g. finger painting, messy foods, touching sand) or engaging in grooming tasks (e.g., nail cutting, hair washing) due to sensory aversion. Loud noises and bright lights can also be difficult to tolerate. For these individuals, the sensory input that they receive from these activities can be overwhelming to their nervous systems.
The concept of sensory processing may seem especially foreign when one first hears it because for most adults, using sensory information to regulate oneself has become intuitive and almost unconscious. When we’re having an off day, we know which forms of sensory input help us feel better, though we may not be thinking about it in those terms. We might naturally take deep breaths or turn on music for calming input when we’re feeling frustrated or we could stand up and take a movement break or have a crunchy snack if we start falling asleep while working on a mundane task.
For children who demonstrate difficulty with sensory processing, occupational therapy can help. Occupational therapists are trained to implement sensory strategies to improve regulation and increase tolerance to input which may be aversive. They can develop a unique “sensory diet” for each child, which consists of various strategies that allow children to receive the input they need in a safe manner. Sensory integration can improve attention and increase tolerance to a variety of sensory information. If you have concerns about your child’s sensory regulation or any sensory seeking or sensory aversion, please contact TEAM 4 Kids to schedule an occupational therapy evaluation.