Sensory processing is the normal neurological function that all people experience when their brain processes sensory information from the environment around them. Sensory information is visual (what we see), gustatory (taste), auditory (what we hear), tactile (what we feel through our skin), and vestibular and proprioceptive (where we are in space and how our limbs are positioned). Sensory processing makes each of us who we are, with individualized preferences and aversions that influence what our interests and chosen activities may be.
Why is sensory processing important for some children with ASD
Research has shown that children with ASD may process their sensory environments differently to other children (Brown & Dunn, 2010; Pollock, 2009). Unusual sensory processing can have a great influence on how a child interacts with their world and how they participate in daily occupations (Koenig & Rudney, 2010; Robinson & Magill-Evans, 2009). Families may notice that their child with ASD has unusual reactions to some aspects of the sensory environment. However, all people have individualized sensory preferences, and it is important to recognize that unusual sensory preferences or aversions may not influence a child’s functioning or learning as much as language, social and cognitive challenges which reflect the key neurodevelopmental problems in autism.
Occupational therapists use specific assessments to determine how a child is processing their sensory world and how their sensory processing influences the
child’s abilities and development. An instrument that is commonly used by occupational therapists is the Sensory Profile (Infant and Toddler) (Dunn, 1999). The
Sensory profile is a tool to measure the child’s responses to sensory events in everyday life that support or interfere with function. Use of this tool allows parents
and therapists to better understand the child’s abilities and behaviors in play, selfcare, motor, social and during communication. Tools such as the sensory profile
assist the family and professionals to understand the complexities of the child’s sensory processing difficulties.
How do sensory processing issues impact on a child’s participation in daily activities?
For some children with an ASD, sensory processing difficulties that are a consequence of their atypical brain function, may impact on participation in key ways.
For example, at times children may find certain sensory experiences (soft touch or loud noises) so aversive, that an event or activity is avoided. This results in reduced
participation in, or disruption of family routines. Children may avoid family events—mealtimes, outings, travel. Children may participate less in activities at kindergarten/childcare/school and environments that involve other children or structured/busy environments. For example, they may have difficulty sitting on the
mat for story time, standing in line, or managing lunch items. Children may fidget, move too much, avoid tasks, or be pre-occupied with aspects of the environment.
Sensory processing difficulties may reduce a child’s self care skills — grooming, dressing, bathing, and toileting. Parents may report struggles with hair combing,
teeth cleaning, haircuts & nail trimming. Occupational therapists intervene to accommodate a child’s sensory processing or to reduce the impact on the child’s performance on the daily tasks that the child wants or needs to do. Intervention is aimed at facilitating change, improving understanding about sensory reactions and facilitating participation in the child’s tasks.