Sensory processing is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioural responses. It is different to sensory acuity which is the ability to sense sensory input. Some people find it difficult to process the many different sensory inputs they receive through their sensory systems during the day. Their brain and body may find it hard to organise, understand and respond to sensations in an appropriate way. Each person interprets sensory information differently, and this can include over sensitivity to sensory information (where a little feels like a lot) or decreased awareness of sensory information (where a lot only feels like a little). A person may be hypersensitive or under responsive to different types of sensory information (eg. hypersensitive to noise, under responsive to movement), or they may have difficulty accessing a ‘just right’ amount of sensory information so may appear both hypersensitive and under responsive to a particular type of sensory information.
Sensory Processing differences conservatively affect about 5% of all children, over 50% of children with attention deficit disorder and 80% of children with autism.
A child with sensory processing differences does not appear physically different; The problem is that they may act differently than other children but there doesn’t seem to be a reason. Teachers and parents sometimes think that the child could just act “right” if they tried harder, but most often this is just not within their ability to do so. Sometimes the children may have a diagnosis of autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but still, this does not explain all their behaviour.
It is important to note that while the term ‘Sensory Processing Disorder’ commonly shows up in internet searches and is used by some professionals it is not actually a term recognised in the DSMV-V which guides diagnoses. This is why we do not diagnose ‘Sensory Processing Disorder’. Rather, our framework is that all people process sensory input in different ways, but when the differences impact on day to day function such as the ability to participate in an activity, then it is important to look into this and work with a professional trained in sensory processing and integration therapy to support participation and solutions.
Does my child have Sensory Processing Differences?
The following is a short list of indicators that may suggest your child has a Sensory Processing differences beyond what most other children experience :
- Child may seem to be in constant motion, unable to sit still for an activity
- Has trouble focusing or concentrating, can’t stay on task
- Seems to be always running, jumping, stomping rather than walking
- Bumps into things or frequently knocks things over
- Reacts strongly to being bumped or touched
- Avoids messy play and doesn’t like to get hands dirty
- Hates having hair washed, brushed or cut.
- Resists wearing new clothing and is bothered by tags or socks
- Distressed by loud or sudden sounds such as a siren or a vacuum
- Has poor fine motor skills such as writing and cutting, difficulty with buttons and tying shoelaces
- Has poor gross motor skills such as body co-ordination, riding a bike, swimming, running
- Hesitates to play or climb on playground equipment
- Difficulties with balance
- Difficulty with eyes tracking objects and often loses place when reading or copying from board
- Marked mood variations and tendency to outbursts and tantrums
- Avoids eye contact
- Has trouble following and remembering a 2—3 step instruction
- Fussy eater, often gags on food
- Reacts to smells not noticed by others
THE FOLLOWING IS A LIST OF SENSORY RED FLAGS
If a child is…
- Very busy, always on the go, and has a very short attention to task
- Often lethargic or low arousal (appears to be tired/slow to respond, all the time, even after a nap)
- A picky eater
- Not aware of when they get hurt (no crying, startle, or reaction to injury)
- Afraid of swinging/movement activities; does not like to be picked up or be upside down
- Showing difficulty learning new activities (motor planning)
- Having a hard time calming themselves down appropriately, difficult to settle and hard to put to sleep
- Appearing to be constantly moving around, even while sitting
- Showing poor or no eye contact
- Frequently jumping and/or purposely falling to the floor/crashing into things
- Seeking opportunities to fall without regard to his/her safety or that of others
- Constantly touching everything they see, including other children
- Hypotonic (floppy body, like a wet noodle!)
- Having a difficult time with transitions between activity or location
- Overly upset with change in routine
- Hates bath time or grooming activities such as; teeth brushing, hair brushing, hair cuts, having nails cut, etc.
- Afraid of/aversive to/avoids being messy, or touching different textures such as grass, sand, carpet, paint, Playdoh, etc.
How can we help
If you are concerned about your child’s sensory processing please book a start-up session with one of our occupational therapists below. We can help you to understand their specific sensory needs and teach you how to support your child to have fun and be happy more often.