What is sensory processing? Sensory processing is the brain’s ability to effectively register and interpret of sensory stimuli from the environment (including our own bodies). It is the brain’s ability to receive, organize and respond to sensory information as it comes in through the various senses.
Sensory challenges occur when the brain misinterprets sensory stimuli that comes in through various senses in the body. The sensory system is the foundation for higher cognitive function and when misperceptions occur, it can affect everything from body functions to learning abilities.
So Who Is Affected By Sensory Challenges?
While not specific to any condition or syndrome, and usually presents as co-morbid challenges with many other conditions, children with ADHD suffer from sensory challenges, which can manifest itself in a variety of behaviors including constantly moving, auditory sensory issues, or even things like aggression and delinquent behavior. Research states that sensory processing problems are more common in children with ADHD than in typically developing children.
Many children and adults can be affected by sensory challenges. Those struggles can be minimal or so severe that it impacts every aspect of a person’s life. Sensory challenges can also be combined with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Some children only have challenges in a couple of areas. For instance, my son could never stand the feeling of soft sand under his feet. Wet, hard sand was fine, but the feeling of the soft sand was like nails on a chalkboard for his entire sensory system. He still can’t stand it today and will run through it to get to the hard, wet sand that his system can tolerate.
He also had issues with certain fabrics on his skin. Some clothing felt too scratchy (even though it felt fine to me) to the point where he would itch and scratch and take clothing off. He got so bad when he was about 2 years I had trouble keeping any clothing on him at all. Everything felt uncomfortable.
He also had issues with sound. If the sound levels went above 7 it was too loud for him, but anything below was too soft. So the sound always had to be on 7 or he would melt down.
My sister who has many sensory issues hears things louder than they are. To me they may be very quiet, but she will be putting her hands over her ears asking me to turn down the sound. Her brain misinterprets the volume and as we ultimately “hear” with our brains (because that is where the information is processed) it sends signals that the sound is deafening.
Anyone can be affected by sensory challenges and it can affect behavior as well as learning. The good news is, the brain can be trained to interpret information in a more accurate way, alleviating a lot of the discomfort children feel.
So Why is Sensory Integration Important?
We have 8 senses in total. They are:
- Vestibular, Proprioception
With so many sensory input systems, it is important that the brain is able to register and interpret the signals and integrate information in order to elicit a coordinated response.
So What Happens When Things Aren’t Integrated?
Sensory information is processed by the vestibular system. It is like our main command station where all sensory input hits and then signals are sent to various areas of the brain and processed.
Children with sensory issues can be put into 2 categories: Sensory seeking and Sensory avoiding.
Sensory Seeking Behavior
Think of your sensory seeking child as a huge cup. It doesn’t matter how much sensory input they get, it never fills the cup. The want more and more in a never ending search to fill something that the brain never registers as filled.
You may see these types of behaviors with sensory seeking children:
• Unable to sit still
• Needs to be in constant motion
• Can be very impulsive
• Runs everywhere instead of walking
• Hates tummy time (for babies)
• Can be impulsive
• Takes unsafe risks inside and out
• Prefers to be upside down or hung off a couch or chair
• On full throttle in most movement activities
• May have ADHD, memory issues or cognitive delay
• May keep saying sound is too low, even though it sounds loud to you
• May not react to loud and unexpected sounds (like a car back firing)
Sensory Avoiding Behavior
Think of your sensory avoiding child as being a really tiny cup so even one drop can be too much and put them at overflowing. These children will avoid sensory stimuli.
You may see these types of behaviors with sensory avoiding children:
• Scared of movement activities
• Dislikes being turned upside down or picked up
• Appears weak (floppy or slouchy)
• Difficulty with coordination
• Difficulty with visual activities like focus and tracking
• Avoids stairs or holds on with both hands to the railing
• Fearful of elevators
• Can appear stubborn
• May have anxiety, memory issues or cognitive delay
• May put hands over ears saying noise is too loud, even though it sounds normal to you
• May hate loud noises like vacuum cleaners, or unexpected sounds
When you know what to look for, sensory challenges can be a part of the puzzle that helps with an overall picture of what is happening with your child. It is rare that children just suffer from sensory difficulties because it affects other areas of learning. Through our tests and monitoring, it helps us to know how to help children and how to make a difference in their everyday lives.
Testing and Assessment
We use a battery of tests to find out exactly where the deficits in learning are occurring so we know how to change the brain to facilitate better learning. It also gives us an accurate way to measure progress. Click to see the range of testing and assessment tools we use.
If you want to find out more, contact us now.