WHAT IS SENSORY PROCESSING?

Sensory processing, or sensory integration as it is also known, refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioural responses. These senses do not just include those that receive information from outside of our body, which are hearing, vision, smell, taste and touch. They also include internal senses that we are unconscious of and these are interoception, proprioception and the vestibular sense. Interoception provides information about sensations coming from our internal organs. Proprioception is the information that the muscles and joints send to the brain and it provides information about our body position and the movement of our body parts. The vestibular sense provides information about changing head positions, the movement of our body through space, and balance.

For some people, sensory integration does not develop as efficiently as it should and this is known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Sensory Integrative Dysfunction. (NB this is not a recognised medical diagnosis at this time) Sensory processing disorder results in their nervous systems having difficulty taking in, integrating and making use of sensory information. This changes how the person then responds to changes in their own body and the environment and how they interact with their environment and other people around them. Dr A. Jean Ayres, the occupational therapist and neuroscientist who first recognised the existence of sensory integration and sensory integrative dysfunction, defined sensory integration as “the neurological process that organises sensation from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment”. She likened sensory processing disorder to a neurological “traffic jam” that stops certain parts of the brain from receiving the sensory information needed so preventing it from being interpreted correctly.

When a person is not able to process and act on sensory information they will have difficulty performing countless everyday tasks. They may present with variety of difficulties including motor problems, behavioural problems, difficulty making friends, anxiety, depression, academic problems, and attention/concentration difficulties. Sensory processing disorder can also coexist with other conditions, for example Cerebral Palsy, Dyspraxia, Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

HOW DOES SENSORY PROCESSING DISORDER IMPACT ON ME?

Sensory processing disorder may affect one sense or it may affect multiple senses. Also, people can be over or under responsive to different sensory stimuli therefore there is a broad spectrum of symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder. There is also a broad spectrum of severity of symptoms but sensory processing disorder is considered when the symptoms become severe or significant enough to affect every day normal functioning and disrupt everyday life.

Many of us will occasionally have difficulties processing sensory information but they can significantly disrupt everyday life for those with chronic difficulties.

Children with Sensory Processing Disorder may present with some of the following difficulties (NB this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Dislike of textures or unable to tolerate labels in clothes
  • Avoids touch or being touched by objects and people, e.g. refusal to hug or kiss family members
  • Has difficulty standing in line or close to other people
  • Dislikes having hair, fingernails or toenails cut
  • Touches people and objects to the point of irritating others – ‘looks’ with their fingers
  • Seeks out all kinds of movement and this interferes with daily routines (e.g. cannot sit still, fidgets)
  • Spins/twirls self frequently throughout the day
  • Falling over on purpose or crashing into things
  • Takes excessive risks during play
  • Impulsive, lacks self control
  • Fear of heights and movement
  • Negative reactions to loud or unexpected noises
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Aversion to certain smells and tastes
  • Picky eating habits
  • Sucking or biting on non-food items such as clothing, fingers or pencils
  • Disregard of sudden or loud sounds
  • Unaware of pain
  • Unaware of body sensations such as hunger, hot or cold
  • Lack of attention to environment, persons or things
  • Has coordination problems
  • Has difficulty planning motor tasks
  • Difficulty in making transitions from one situation to another
  • Inability to unwind or calm self
  • Activity level that is unusually high or unusually low
  • Sleep problems – difficulty switching off to go to sleep, difficulty getting going in the morning
  • Easily distracted by things in their environment

HOW CAN MANCHESTER OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY SERVICES HELP?

With treatment the child with sensory processing problems can become as competent as possible – physically, academically and emotionally. It is recommended that a referral to occupational therapy is made as early as possible as young children respond best to intervention. This is because their nervous systems are still changeable. As children grow their brains become less malleable and their unusual reactions to sensations become more established. However older children and adults can benefit from therapy so it is never too late to get help. Occupational therapy is an effective intervention for changing the way that a child organises and interprets sensory information so that all the senses can work together. Treatment depends on the individual child’s needs but in general it involves helping the child to learn to cope with things that they can’t tolerate and helping him/her to do better at activities they are not normally good at.

Treatment for sensory processing problems is called sensory integration. The goal of sensory integration is to challenge the child in a fun, playful way so that he or she can learn to respond appropriately to their environmental and to function more normally in daily life. The training of specific skills is not the focus of this type of therapy; instead it is on the underlying sensory processing problems that prevent the child from being successful in those specific skills. Manchester Occupational Therapy Services is now able to offer sensory integration as part of a therapy package. Sensory integration is a highly specialised therapy which is practiced by trained occupational therapists. The therapy package is also likely to include advice for parents and school staff on the environmental accommodations that can be used to enhance the child’s function in their daily life.

Schaaf, R. C. & McKeon Nightlinger, K. (2007). Occupational Therapy Using a Sensory Integrative Approach: A Case Study of Effectiveness. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy Mar/Apr 2007 Vol. 61, Iss. 2, Pg. 239.

USEFUL BOOKS

Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals: A Practical Daily Use Handbook for Parents and Teachers, Angie Voss OTR

The Out of Sync Child: Recognising and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder, Carol Stock Kranowitz

Just Take a Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversion and Eating Challenges, Lori Ernsperger & Tania Stegan-Hanson