Rachel Morris, OTR/L, Director Therapy
All of us interact with our surroundings by taking information from our senses, processing the information and then responding to it. In fact, throughout our lifetime, we naturally create a sensory lifestyle that helps us to cope and regulate as we go through our everyday activities. Most of us do this without even thinking about it. This is called sensory processing.
These are all examples of how sensory input helps us to regulate our daily functioning. This neurological process is called sensory processing or sensory integration. There are eight sensory systems within our bodies that provide us with valuable information about the world around and within us.
What Is Sensory Processing?
All of us have difficulty processing sensory information from time to time. That is normal. For instance, I dislike Jello because of what I perceive as the slimy texture. As a result, I tend to avoid Jello and go about my daily routine without any real issues or impact.
However, for some people, sensory processing dysfunction disrupts their daily life, making it difficult to engage in everyday activities, tasks, and relationships. Their sensory system restricts their ability to accurately perceive, understand, and respond to their environment resulting in a chronic and limiting condition that impacts the whole family. Mealtime, bathtime, dressing, playing, and working are more challenging.
It is estimated that 5-16% of school-aged children have some form of sensory processing disorder (SPD). SPD can be difficult to identify as it is often (but not always) seen in children with other conditions such as autism and ADHD that may camouflaged it. Adults can have SPD as well.
In addition, sensory issues can look very different from one person to another as there is a wide spectrum of issues that can be seen. Sometimes sensory reactions manifest as behavioral concerns. This diversity of symptoms can make it challenging to tease out what is happening. Below is a quick overview of the 3 sensory processing disorders.
Sensory Modulation Disorder:
Modulation is the brain’s ability to tune into sensory input from the different sensory systems and regulate an appropriate reaction to the input. People can be over-responsive, under-responsive, or a combination of both.
People who are over-responsive to sensations respond too much, too soon, or for too long to the sensory input. The hypersensitivity can also develop into a sensory aversion where the individual avoids situations where they would encounter the sensation.
Examples may include:
- Covering ears with loud sounds
- Not touching sticky or messy materials like glue or paint
- Being afraid to climb on playground equipment.
Other people are under-responsive to sensory stimulation. Meaning that they seem to be unaware of the sensation, are delayed in responding to it, or their responses are less intense than typical responses. These individuals sometimes seem disengaged from their environment or others. Being unaware of food on the face or around the mouth after eating, not noticing that they are hurt, and not responding to their name when called are examples of hyposensitivity.
Sensory Discrimination Disorder:
Discrimination is the process where the brain evaluates sensory information, compares it, and assigns qualities to it. People with sensory discrimination problems can’t assign qualities and therefore the information is not processed correctly.
Examples of these types of problems:
- Inability to feel an object and know what it is
- Difficulties finding an object that is on a busy background
- Not being able to distinguish direction of a sound or difference between some sounds like “cat” and “cap”
Sensory-Based Motor Disorder:
This sensory disorder is concerned with the body’s ability to maintain core strength and stability to support movement as well as the process of thinking, planning, and executing a motor sequence. Appearing weak with poor postural control, being accident-prone or clumsy, and having difficulties imitating new movements are all illustrations of this disorder type.
Occupational therapy (OT) is one of the primary treatments for sensory processing disorders. An occupational therapist can evaluate a client’s sensory system to help pinpoint sensory strength and needs. Based on the evaluation, the OT will help to identify environmental stressors to eliminate or suggest accommodations. They will also work to provide direct intervention that will provide a just right challenge to help the sensory system develop and organize for more appropriate responses.
If you have concerns about sensory processing disorder as it is impacting everyday functioning for you or your family members, Enablr Therapy’s OTs are here to help!
Bunim, J. (2013, July 9). Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Bases for Sensory Processing Disorder in Kids. University of California San Francisco. Retrieved from https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kids#:~:text=Sensory%20processing%20disorders%20affect%205,motor%20skills%20and%20easy%20distractibility.