Before I can explain what Sensory Processing Disorder is, I feel I need to explain what Sensory Processing IS.
Sensory Processing is the way in which the brain registers, interprets, and responds to information from the body and the environment. This information is registered through the eyes, ears, skin, muscles, joints, and movement receptors (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, proprioceptive, and vestibular sensory systems). Disorders in sensory processing adversely affect a child’s ability to automatically process, organize and respond to information.
Simply put, Sensory Processing is how we receive and interpret information from our senses.
What is the purpose of our Sensory System???
The purpose of our Sensory System is for survival. Our senses protect us from danger. If you “see” something dangerous, such as a live wire or broken glass, you will avoid getting close to it. If you “hear” a siren coming down the street, you move out of the way. If you “smell” something such as milk and it doesn’t smell good, you will not drink it to prevent sickness. These are examples of how your brain interprets information and reacts appropriately. What happens if you don’t receive the appropriate information?? Or, on the contrary, what happens when you receive that information and interpret it incorrectly. Sensory Processing Disorders are when your brain and body have a miscommunication.
Hyporesponsive means “under” responsive. This occurs when the child does not receive information and will seek sensory input. On the opposite end, a child with Hyperresponsive, “over” responsive, will become overwhelmed easily. For example, if you have a child with a hyporesponse towards movement and place him on a swing, this child can swing fast, spin for a loooooong time without feeling dizzy. A child who presents with a hyperresponse towards movement, will be anxious when placed on the swing, may get very dizzy or even sick.
Sensory Processing Disorder is considered a Spectrum Disorder because children can range from Hypo to Hyper responsive. Let’s take a look at how it can affect each of the senses.
Visual Processing Skills
When a child is brought to their Pediatrician for an eye exam, they are only checked for 20/20 vision. This means that at 20 feet away, they can see a font size of 20. If a child is unable to see 20/20 they will be referred to an Optometrist or Ophthalmologist. These are medical professionals who are able to see if medically there is something wrong with the actual eye, nerves, etc. However, if a child sees 20/20, that does not mean they have appropriate Visual Processing Skills. Visual Processing is when the brain interprets visual information in the environment. Visual-Spatial refers to the ability to tell where objects are in space (how far or close something is). Visual-Motor Processing is defined as interpreting visual stimuli and responding with a motoric action. This skill is crucial and is used for everyday skills such as handwriting, coloring, playing sports, etc. If a child misinterprets visual stimuli they will have a difficult time tracking (reading, mazes, catching a ball). Another example is when a child becomes visually overwhelmed by the distractions present causing an inability to stay focused.
Auditory Processing is the ability to process sound information. Children with poor response to Auditory Processing can develop anxiety around loud and unexpected sounds such as fire drills, hairdryers, blenders, and vacuum cleaners. Children may also display difficulty remembering directions, reading and display decreased attention secondary to distractions.
This is the sense of smell. Odors are sniffed and are sent to the brain. Children with sensitive olfactory systems have a more intense and emotional association (others can not smell even intense scents). Children with a negative response towards Olfactory senses will gag when a scent is too overwhelming for them. This affects social skills as well as their ability to eat a variety of foods.
The sensory system is responsible for the perception of taste and flavors. The “taste” cells are located in the mouth and can taste salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. Children who have difficulty in this will avoid (or seek out) spicey or bland foods. They will display a gag reflex if eating a texture or taste they don’t process.
The skin receives sensory input (light touch, pain, pressure, and temperature). Children with hypersensitivity towards tactile input don’t want to get messy. Other signs are, not wanting to wear textured clothes or refusing to play with textured items such as sand and play-doh. This impacts their ability to eat a variety of foods (if a child displays signs of sensitivity on their hands, they will display that same reaction in their mouth).
Vestibular Sense (Balance and Movement)
The semicircular canals in the inner ear detect movement and allow us to adjust to our head and body to stay in an upright posture (impacts attention, balance, and motor planning). A child with poor vestibular processing presents as constantly moving, inability to sustain appropriate posture impacting attention, and poor balance and motor planning. These children can be mislabeled as impulsive, clumsy, hyperactive, or even lazy. For example, if a child is sitting on the grass at recess and is not playing on the playground equipment, he could be labeled as lazy. However, the reason he does not partake in playground fun is because he is scared of falling. When he sees other kids running on the equipment, he is afraid he will lose his balance and hurt himself. So, he sits and watches the other children play. The issue is, in order for him to get better, he must practice. As he learns to properly interpret his information, he will start to play on the playground improving his self-confidence and his independence.
Information from our tendons and muscles tell our brain where our body parts are and how it relates to the environment. Proprioception is responsible for pressure gradation. Meaning how much appropriate force to use (cracking an egg without crushing the entire egg in our hands). Children with poor proprioceptive input are labeled “bulls in a China shop” or “clumsy”. These children will push so hard on their crayon that it breaks.
Sensory Processing is an important part of our lives. Without the ability to properly process information, our daily lives are affected. If you feel your child has a Sensory Processing Disorder, speak to your doctor and get a referral for an Occupational Therapist evaluation.
Sarah Appleman MS, OTR/L is the author of “Play With Your Food” and is a specialist in her field.