Sensory Processing refers to the way a person’s nervous system receives sensory messages and turns them into responses. These senses include sight (vision), sound (auditory), touch (tactile), taste (gustatory), body position (proprioception), and movement (vestibular). Most people receive and organize these messages effortlessly into adaptive physiological and behavioral responses. Kids with sensory processing issues aren’t trying to be difficult. But imagine if everything you touch feels like a raw oyster, ordinary noises sound so loud they are painful, your clothes feel like sandpaper; smells that others don't notice make you gag; or you feel like you're falling when you move. Their brains have trouble filtering, organizing, and interpreting information taken in by the senses which can cause extreme reactions to sensations. Some kids with sensory processing difficulties underreact. They often have a need for movement. And they may seek out input like spicy or sour tastes and physical contact and pressure. They might keep their hand on a hot stove because they don’t register pain the way other kids do. For them, safety can be a big issue.
Keep in mind that kids aren’t always one or the other. Some kids may be sensory seeking in certain situations and sensory avoiding in others, depending on how that child is coping or self-regulating at the time. Sensory input is accumulative so what may not bother someone in the morning may set them over the edge in the evening. Sensory processing issues can significantly impact learning, communication, and social skills.
Depending on how children respond to sensory input, they may experience challenges with building effective communication skills. For example, if a child is hypersensitive to auditory sensory input, they may hear many different sounds more clearly than a child who is typically developing. This heightened sensitivity can make it extremely difficult for a child to focus on communicating, as they are also paying attention to many other sounds. If a child has decreased auditory sensitivity, they may have difficulty distinguishing between different speech sounds. From an oral-motor perspective, children who have tactile defensiveness may have challenges eating solid foods due to their texture. If a child is not chewing food, they are missing opportunities to develop oral-motor function and muscles. This lack of strength can make it difficult for children to produce speech sounds.
If kids are uncomfortable touching things, they may be reluctant to play with and manipulate objects. This can delay the development of fine motor skills.
Gross motor skills can be impacted by difficulties processing information from our vestibular and proprioceptive systems. The vestibular system includes the parts of the inner ear and brain that help control balance, eye movement, and spatial orientation. It helps keep you stable and upright. Children with vestibular issues may not know where their body is in space. This can make them feel off balance and out of control. Our proprioceptive system uses the receptors in our muscles that tell us where our body parts are. For example, if you raise your hand, you know that your arm is over your head. You don’t have to think about it or look in a mirror. But kids with poor proprioception may think their arm is over their head when it’s really straight out in front of them. Kids who have trouble with proprioception or the vestibular sense could struggle with motor skills in a number of ways.
They may seem awkward and clumsy. An activity like running or even going up and down stairs may be hard for kids who have difficulty knowing how their body is oriented and whether it’s stable. They may move slowly or avoid activities that are too challenging
Sensory-related difficulties can make it tough to gauge movements for all kinds of tasks. Kids with sensory processing issues may break a cheap toy because they’re pushing too hard, rip a page when they just meant to turn it, or give over enthusiastic hugs.
They may not like physical activities that other kids find fun. For example, they may not feel safe on the swings because they’re not getting the sensory input that tells them they’re securely seated. As the swing moves, they may have difficulty understanding how to shift their weight to balance.
They may be in constant motion, bump into things or seem out of control. When kids don’t get enough feedback from the sensory system, they may exaggerate their movements to get the information they need from the environment. When they walk down a hallway, they may knock into the wall to feel more anchored. They may kick their legs under the table for the same reason. They may love physical activity like doing flips off the sofa or just jumping up and down.
Teachers and therapists often refer to proprioceptive activities as “Heavy Work”. These activities can be beneficial to help kids self regulate, pay attention, and remain calm in a variety of situations. Heavy work is good for kiddos who are sensory seekers as well as kiddos who are under responsive.