Sensory Processing “Understanding the way children learn, behave & play”
Sensory processing is being able to use information received through all senses to understand what is going on around us. The sensations received from hearing, sight, tastes, smell, touch, pressure and movement, are analysed by the brain which processes the sensations.
Most people spend their days surrounded by a myriad of sensory stimuli. Visually, we process information that helps us discriminate which key to put into the car ignition, the colour of the traffic light or where our favourite brand of washing powder is on the shelf. We use our tactile (touch) sense to detect whether the water in the shower is too hot or decide how tightly to lace our shoes. We rely on auditory processing to hear our mobile phone ring on a noisy bus or to distinguish whose voice is on the other end of the line. Our olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) senses will tell us whether that milk in the bottom of the bottle is safe to put in our tea, or when the toast is burnt.
Most of us react quite similarly but some of us can be more or less sensitive. With sensory processing disorder, you can misinterpret everyday sensations.
The relationship between sensory processing and behaviour.
Matthew has just turned four. He is a very loving child who enjoys being read to and playing football with his dad. He likes to keep his room tidy and he rarely makes a fuss when told it’s time for bed. But Matthew’s parents are becoming increasingly concerned by his erratic behaviour. He is easily upset by small changes in routine. Visits to the dentist and the hairdresser are a nightmare and cutting his nails is a three-person job. His mother describes him as a “picky eater”. He refuses to eat any food that contains lumps and he always waits until his food is cold before eating it. He can’t tolerate wearing woollen clothing or having anything around his neck. Last holidays, when the family spent a week on the Gold Coast, he refused to walk barefoot on the sand for the first three days of the trip.
Alicia, who is starting school next year, also has some worrying traits. Her mother wonders how she’ll cope with the structure of the school day as Alicia is unable to sit still for longer than a few minutes. At home she climbs on the furniture and she loves to take physical risks such as jumping from a height. She is often covered in bruises but she rarely feels pain. She frequently trips or knocks things over and many of her toys are broken because she has played with them too roughly. She never seems to feel the cold and she often needs persuading to put on shoes and socks.
At first glance, Matthew and Alicia seem to be like chalk and cheese, however they have one thing in common: they each have difficulty processing sensory information.
There are also two other kinds of sensory input that we need to process effectively in order to successfully negotiate our world – the sense of where our bodies are in space and our sense of movement within that space. Anyone who can touch type or drive a manual car is calling upon his or her sense of proprioception (the feeling of knowing where a part of the body is in space without having to actually look at it) and kinaesthesia (an awareness of movement in one or more parts of the body). Yet it is not only skilled, learned tasks that require these sensory abilities. How do people know whether they are sitting up straight or slouching over to one side? How is it that we can reach and pick up a full cup of coffee without spilling it? How do we judge the correct force to
use when cuddling a newborn baby? All of these skills, as well as countless others that we take for granted, require the ability to reliably process incoming sensory information, often combining input from more than one sensory system at once. Most people can do this so effectively that they don’t even register that it’s happened, however for children like Matthew and Alicia, who have disordered sensory processing, everyday tasks such as bending down to put their shoes on or drawing with a crayon become challenging and frustrating.
Matthew shows many of the classic signs of being over-responsive to sensory input. His processing of tactile information is particularly unusual and his brain identifies many harmless sensations as painful or threatening, sending him into ‘fight or flight’ mode. He is a stickler for routine and predictability because he only feels comfortable when he knows what’s going to happen next, as this means that he will not be forced to process new or potentially overwhelming sensory input. He feels safe enough with his immediate family to engage in some ‘rough and tumble’ play but for the most part he prefers sedentary activities as these offer little in the way of confusing tactile input.
He exhibits oral defensiveness, meaning that lumps in his food trigger a ‘danger’ response in his brain as though the lumps were actually pieces of glass. Textures such as wool feel scratchy on his skin and he takes a long time to get used to new sensations such as the feeling of sand in between his toes because he initially registers these sensations as harmful. He has difficulty finding objects within a cluttered background because it’s hard for him to filter out the relevant visual information from the irrelevant, therefore he likes everything to be kept in its place so that he won’t have to search too much. Matthew has a tendency to lash out at times when he feels threatened or overwhelmed. This behaviour is driven by primitive survival instincts and as such it is not a conscious act, however Matthew often gets into trouble for hitting other children or refusing to participate in necessary activities such as having a dental check-up. Over time there is a real danger that Matthew’s self esteem will be affected by his difficulties.
Alicia’s problems stem from her inability to effectively register enough sensory information. Unlike Matthew, she requires significantly more input than most people in order to even detect the presence of the stimuli. As a result, she tends to seek out extra input by constantly moving and engaging in physically risky activities that provide her with intense sensory feedback. Her diminished ability to detect her body’s position in space means that when she is not moving she finds it difficult to know where she is – or even whether or not she is upright. Just as a cyclist must continue pedaling in order to stay on his bike, Alicia needs to continually fidget and wriggle to provide feedback to her muscles and joints, or else she will be literally ‘lost in space’. Poor tactile registration makes it difficult for Alicia to gauge how tightly she is holding something, so as a result she often breaks objects by accident and she tends to press on the paper with excessive force when writing and drawing. Alicia loves any opportunity to gain extra sensory input, so she prefers to go barefoot as this way she can obtain tactile stimulation through her feet. Her mother tries to avoid taking her to the supermarket as Alicia tends to touch everything. At times Alicia will even smell or taste new items – food or non-food, as doing so will help her to gain more sensory information than just looking at or touching the object.
What can we do to help children like Matthew and Alicia? The first step is understanding. In the presence of odd or problematic behaviours it’s important to consider the possibility that there may be a sensory origin. Of course, this is not always the case but it’s worth asking “What is the child gaining from this behaviour?” Is it avoidance – children like Matthew tend to act in ways that will limit their exposure to sensory stimuli that they know will overwhelm them. Is it sensory seeking – children like Alicia have an ‘inner drive’ to continually feed their nervous systems with more and more sensory information. Is there a pattern to the behaviour, for example does it occur at times of transitioning from one type of activity to another? Does it happen more often in the presence of altered sensory environments such as when friends or relatives have come to the house, or when the class goes on an outing?
An occupational therapist with experience in assessing sensory processing may be able to pinpoint where the problems lie and also provide some strategies for coping. Many of these suggestions will involve environmental modification, such as increasing or reducing the amount of stimulation in a room or adding calming input through use of media such as soothing music or a weighted quilt. There is also a wealth of information about sensory processing and sensory integration available on the internet.
Sensory processing is a complex topic, partly because it seems so simple for most of us. However, an awareness of the relationship between sensory stimulation and behaviour is the first step towards helping a child with sensory processing difficulties.
Melinda is an occupational therapist based in Melbourne. She has worked with children in a variety of settings, including schools, community health and private practice. Her current role includes training occupational therapists and other professionals in the interpretation of sensory processing assessments.
Sensory Processing Free Webinar
“Can’t You See I’m Sensational? Understanding the way children learn, behave and play.”
Thursday, December 8, 2011 8:00 PM – 9:00 PM AEDT
To Register Click Here
This webinar will run for approximately 60 minutes including question time. This webinar will present an introduction to sensory processing and is delivered by Pearson’s Consultant Occupational Therapist Melinda Cooper.
Agenda: – What is sensory processing? – How does sensory processing impact upon children’s ability to play, learn and interact? – How can you tell the difference between sensory processing and behavioural issues? – What are some basic strategies to help children with sensory needs? – Where can I go for more information?
Sensory Processing Book Giveaway
Thanks to Pearson I have a copy of “Can’t you see I’m Sensational” to Give-Away RRP $75.00
This fabulous, informative book is great for those who have an interest in helping children- parents, carers, educators and health professionals. The book uses simple language that will help you identify children’s strength and weaknesses providing children with a stronger foundation for life long learning and development, whilst learning through play.
Giveaway closes on Tuesday 13th December at 9pm
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