Sensory Processing “Understanding the way children learn, behave & play”

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.

To Enter

Giveaway closes on Tuesday 13th December at 9pm

Only TWO Easy Peasy  steps

Share this post online, either on Facebook or Twitter

Leave a comment saying whether you’ve registered for the webinar and why this book would be of benefit to you.

This Giveway is now Closed

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Nathalie Brown

Child Behaviour Consultant at Easy Peasy Kids
Child Behaviourist and researcher. Creator of "Less tantrums. More smiles". I look at the bigger picture and think outside the box when working with children and their behaviour. Their world is different. As adults we sometimes forget this. Happiness Creator in my spare time. Eater of chocolate and cake.

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  1. I have shared on Fb and registered for the webinar. I am very interested in this for my whole family. I am pretty sure if people were aware of this in the 1970s and 80s i would have been diagnosed with it (I am hyper sensitive to sounds, never sit still, cannot stand the feel of rain touching my skin and on and on). I am interested now though as my 8yo has extreme food issues I recently shared on my blog and texture and temperature are a big factor, plus numerous other behaviours my 2 kids exhibit are raising red flags enough for me to explore this idea now.

    • Many Sensory processing issues are currently being misdiagnosed and labelled wrongly. This has come about through the work I do and I’m very pleased to ow be working directly with OT’s, seecth therapists and paedriticians. The webinar is run by an OT, I hope it helps and let me know if you need any further advice. Nx

  2. Hester says

    I have registered and shared on facebook :). It will be a late night for me, since it will 2am here. BUT that said, my son is sensory avoiding and the other one is sensory seeking. The hardest part for me is that they are so ‘normal’ on the outside, until these things hit. So it’s often misunderstood, by others and myself. When is their behaviour ‘sensory’ as I call it and when is it just plain normal kid defiance. I know I am all the way in Canada, but I am still hoping I can win this book, it will give more clarity on what is what. I want to see the potential in my kids and not just the limitations, the sensory processing can be used to it’s full advantage if we can teach the kids how to use it for good.

    • Working with children, its essential to see their sensory processing as an opportunity to tecah them “ouside the box” and it gives them amazing confidnce that they can still achieve. Thanks for sharing x

  3. Thanks for posting this; I’m sharing it around for my friends who can benefit from more information about SPD. I learned about it in a trial-by-fire way with my older daughter, who’s now almost 10YO. She’s made great strides, but it was rough going as we had almost ZERO professional support unless we were able to pay for it out of pocket, as it’s not in the DSM so it’s not recognized as valid (or as “coverable” by health plans).

    This book would be a great resource for me as I try to find ways to share this information with my daughter’s schools and teachers, as well as friends and family members who just don’t “get it.”

    I’m not able to do the webinar, but I am so very glad that this information is being disseminated so that more families can take advantage of the research that’s been done so far. 🙂

  4. My 3rd of 4 sons, sounds like ”alicia” in this article that I’ve shared on Facebook. He has the typical reactions to water on skin, not sitting still, rubbing up against things to constantly be touching/feeling, licking objects (metal mostly), walking in particular directions and correcting himself if it wasn’t the way he wanted to do it & is rough (usually broken heartily unintentionally) with toys. As a mum watching him grow to almost 6yo, I often voiced concern, did speech & occ therapy & was told he’d ”grow out of it”. Now Separated, new issues in his life have made him add to/alter his types of sensory requirements making him more of an outcast to his friends. He’s too friendly and touchy feely, & even as I write I get tears of worry for his future. His father now thinks it’s psychological and has requested behind my back a referral to a psychologist! Surely as his full time carer the last 5yrs my perceptions haven’t been wrong – this “sensory processing” is exactly what I have been slowly learning about and would love more information.

  5. Hi
    I just registered for you webinar, my first one!
    I actually read this post days ago, and my brain has just been stewing over it. I really think this could explain the reason why my middle daughter is such a ‘bulldozer’. She is just unable to be gentle. She absolutely adores her younger sister, now 18 months, but ever since she has was born she has been copping lots of ‘tough loving’. She is constantly falling over everything. Bedtime is always so full on, it takes forever for her to ‘switch off’. So different to my other girls. She does not have a ‘naughty’ bone in her body, but she is the one who always seem to be having to have behaviour redirected, normally to no avail. As much as i absolutely love her, she is the one I struggle with to understand at all. She’s currently 4 and a half.
    I really believe this resource would be of great use for me. This year I am also becoming a facilitator for our local playgroup. To be able to educate myself more in depth about this topic and to be able to share this information with others would be invaluable.
    This is the first have read of the topic. I live in Australia, and am a sole mum. I would really love to learn more about this subject, I feel it could help many, many families.
    Look forward to watching the webinar!

    • I hope you find the webinar helpful. Have you tried any visual aids with your daughter? Some children seem to get it more once its visual. Nx

  6. Vanessa King (@smarttalksurrey) says

    Fascinating stuff, thanks for writing. I don’t have any personal experience with this, but as a teacher I wonder if some of the challenging behaviours we’ve categorised as ADHD or whatever are really down to disorders of the sensory system.

    • When I taught I did feel that some diagnosis verged more towards sensory processing and once I chnaged my teaching methods and thought out of the box more the results were amazing.

  7. I have registered for the webinar and posted on Facebook.

    My first son is very like “Alicia”. He exhibits sensory seeking behavior such as extreme touching and breaking pretty much all toys and books. There are no shoes and socks, no underwear, no tags on clothes but plenty of extreme touching. I would love to educate myself on the topic in order to help him and help others understand him. Unfortunately many people don’t get behavior that sits outside of the “norm”. Whatever “norm” is!

    • There is no real norm as we are all so different like our children, we need to encourage a lot more thinking out of the box and adapt to children’s individual needs. When I taught I would change certain parts of the learning for certain children but now there is so much red tape, pressure with tests that everyone has to follow the same program. Hope the webinar helps answers some of your questions.

    • You won Carli x

  8. Eufemia Elliott says

    I’ve shared this on Facebook and registered on the webinar. I am really interested in this as I think that there may be sensory processing issues on both my husband’s and my side of the family. I’m interested to see whether there is a genetic link or if it is environmental or both.

  9. I’ve shared both on my facebook and Twitter. 🙂

    I unfortunately live in the US, so the time is 4:00 in the morning for the webinar which is too early for me. But I was wondering if you might have a replay or a podcast of the webinar for those who are going to miss it?

  10. Stephanie Szoke says

    ur posts, not only the ones on aspergers are such a massive help to myself and my husband as sometimes we really do struggle with our beautiful tribe of 7 children including our son Ben (10) who has aspergers. thanku so much for being there xxxx

  11. mother rucker says

    Nathalie. Thankyou for hosting Melinda’s article. I have been immersed in the world of Sensory processing for at least the last year and a half to help my sensory child experience the world as most other children do. To all the mums. He is doing SO well and there is hope that you child can be able to regulate, focus, sit still, learn, wear socks, get haircuts, expand the eating standards, tolerate loud, irritating noises without a meltdown and all the other myriad of difficulties that comes from Sensory Processing or lack thereof.These little people need joyful learning and I found that my child has improved leaps and bounds with OT specialising in Sensory processing. I learnt it was seldom about behaviour but the sensory that was the issue. The process was just as much about changing my parenting skills,enthusiasm, praise, intensity, regulation, modelling etc and less about demanding, disciplining, threatening, directing, expecting and nagging. I have a few little techniques on my humble blog but once again thanks Nathalie for this post. I look forward to having a better read of your blog! Cheers

    • Ahhhhh love receiving comments like yours I’m so pleased it was helpful and happy to hear about your child doing so brilliantly. I’d be happy to share your blog could you send me the link. Love Nx

  12. Thanks for you response Nathalie. You have really spurred me on to create a whole chapter of content on Sensory Processing from a mum’s perspective and most probably our journey from absolute confusion to finding our feet to actually “winning”. Its very early days on my blog, havent really locked in my “voice” but I really hope you enjoy my evolving posts. Its very exciting to create and develop a place where you can broadcast so much and hopefully add some value to other peoples lives. You mentioned my link??….
    Such a novice i am 🙂

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