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We’re living in a world full of SENSORY input!

Sensory processing plays a big role in our daily lives. Everything we encounter on a daily basis can relate to sensory processing. There are eight senses: vision, hearing, smell, touch, mouth, balance (vestibular), body awareness (proprioception), and internal sensation (interoception).

Photo credit: kind health company

In the morning, you feel hungry (interoception). You make yourself a cup of coffee and a bagel for breakfast while listening to the news on TV. While you’re enjoying your breakfast, you actually use your visual, hearing, smell, touch, and oral senses. You get dressed and walk downstairs to the door using your balance and body awareness (vestibular and proprioception).

Sensory processing is important for humans because it helps us with our daily functioning.

What is sensory processing?

Sensory processing, also known as sensory integration, is about “how we feel”. It is the process that our brains receive the sensory information, organize and process to respond with appropriate motor and behavior responses.

For most people, our bodies have the capability to regulate ourselves with the sensory input we receive from our surroundings. However, some people are born with different sensory processing abilities. The LED lighting in a room can feel blinding to one person and pleasant to another person. It may be hard to understand the experiences of someone who processes the world differently. Sensory processing can be subjective and invisible.

What is sensory processing disorder (SPD)?

A sensory processing disorder is a neurological condition where the brain has a higher sensitivity to input and difficulty organizing and processing the sensory information. SPD can be genetic in some ways, but the exact cause is unknown. It can affect a person’s performance in activities of daily living, in addition to development, learning, playing, socializing, and exhibiting appropriate behavior (Schaff & Smith R., 2006). SPD is also common in ASD, ADHD, or developmental delay…etc.

Sensory seeking and sensory avoiding are two types of sensitivity in sensory processing disorder.

Sensory seeking

A behavior that indicates a person is undersensitive, also known as hyposensitivity. Everyone seeks sensory input in some way or another. For example, when you are hungry, you seek a sensation of fullness by eating food. When we are seeking sensation (as with feeling hungry) it can be hard to concentrate and make us feel agitated or “hangry”.

The same idea applies to sensory seeking behavior for someone who is undersensitive. Wanting sensation may be accompanied by difficulty concentrating and agitation until the sensation happens. Examples of sensory seeking behavior include rocking back and forth on a chair and chewing on objects.

Sensory seeking behavior is often connected across the 8 senses. Oral seeking behavior (such as chewing on things) is often seen with other sensory seeking behavior (such as bumping against walls). For example, a child with ADHD might demonstrate sensory seeking behavior with constant movement and oral seeking behavior by chewing.

Examples of sensory seeking:

  1. Rocking back and forth on chairs

  2. Overly active, bumps into things intentionally

  3. Like physical contact, like to be touched or touch others

  4. Oral seeking behavior, like to chew, bite or put things into mouth

It’s typical to see sensory seeking behavior in autistic people. We may see people who like to rock, bounce, or swing. These are the motions that help them to calm down, regulate, and concentrate. It’s also typical to see in the ADHD population. Constant motion helps people with ADHD to receive the sensory input their bodies need.

IMPORTANT: We DON’T EVER want to stop extra motion and sensory-seeking behavior!

Sensory avoiding

A behavior that indicates a person is oversensitive, also known as hypersensitivity.  Everyone avoids sensation in some way or another. For example, if you eat too much, you may feel nauseous and want to stop the fullness sensation. To avoid the sensation, you stop eating. sensation. 

Examples of these behaviors include covering eyes or ears to stop visual or auditory

Examples of sensory avoiding:

  1. Dislike cutting hair, trimming nails, brushing teeth, taking shower

  2. Very picky eater with eating food with certain textures or tastes

  3. Dislike touching certain textures, such as soft, creamy, mushy

  4. Strongly dislike the feeling of tags

  5. Feel overwhelmed with loud noises or bright light

  6. Difficulty or fear of climbing stairs, especially going downstairs

  7. Afraid of height, fast movement (elevator, airplane, or roller coaster), or jumping

Sensory avoiding behavior can be connected across the senses. Oral avoiding behavior is often seen with sensory avoiding behavior. For example, a child who doesn’t like creamy and mushy textures, (such as slimes, shaving creams, or bubbles) may also be a picky eater who avoids eating food with creamy or mushy texture.

Whew! Let’s take a sensory break here…

As you may start to wonder if you or your child has a sensory processing disorder…

We all have sensory sensitivity. Sensory processing is subjective and not measurable. Everyone has their own preference and habits on things, and it can differ from colors, shapes, textures to smell.

Using myself as an example, I have never been a big fan of barbies or dolls. I have never been able to tolerate the plastic smell and the textures of artificial hair since I was little. Asking me to touch barbie would make me scared, and I would get goosebumps.

If a person is still able to function independently on a daily basis, they may not need sensory therapy. The purpose of OT is to help people function and be independent in their daily life.

We all are not perfect or ideal, and that makes us human beings. We all have strengths and weaknesses.

I encourage people to accept weakness, to accept vulnerability, and to accept fear. As we talk about different sensory processing, I hope we embrace our differences and accept our imperfections.

Please reach out to your doctor or occupational therapists if you have any concerns or questions regarding the sensory processing.

Resources

  1. Schaff, R. C., & Smith Roley, S. (2006). Sensory integration: Applying clinical reasoning to practice with diverse population. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

  2. https://sensoryhealth.org/basic/understanding-sensory-processing-disorder

  3. https://www.twinkl.com/teaching-wiki/sensory-seeking-and-sensory-avoiding

  4. Crasta JE, Salzinger E, Lin MH, Gavin WJ, Davies PL. Sensory Processing and Attention Profiles Among Children With Sensory Processing Disorders and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Front Integr Neurosci. 2020 May 5;14:22. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2020.00022. PMID: 32431600; PMCID: PMC7214749.

  5. https://www.sensoryfriendly.net/who-has-sensory-sensitivity/

I am proud to be an occupational therapist. Ella Wu, OTD, OTR/L Doctor of Occupational Therapy
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