Ask an OT: What is Sensory Processing?

September 11, 2019
Ask an OT: What is Sensory Processing?

What is sensory processing?

Sensory processing or sensory integration is the way the brain receives, organises and interprets sensory input through the nervous system. The brain is bombarded with sensations such as sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell, and movement, as well as internal sensations including hunger and emotions. It then filters these sensory inputs to determine what needs attention. Integration of the sensory system is an important part of development, where a child needs to understand their sense of self and their body’s movement in relation to their surroundings.

A typically developing nervous system is adaptable and maintains an optimal level of arousal. However, when the flow of sensation is disorganised the brain has difficulty forming perceptions. This occurs when there is a mismatch between the state of alertness and the requirement of the activity, resulting in difficulty performing daily functions. For example, when a child is expected to do what may perceived as a simple task, but they say  “I can’t” or “it’s too hard”, it may be because they need to be moving  to achieve optimal arousal.

When a child is in a state of high arousal, the protective system is turned on and their body is perceived to be in fight, flight, or fright mode. This results from a defensive nervous system, whereby non-threatening sensations are enhanced and perceived as threatening, for example, seams in socks or tags in clothes. This can result in sensory overload where a child might show behaviours such as trying to escape, breath holding, inefficient pain registration, or ‘shut down’ where they may appear  as withdrawn or avoidant.

In comparison, when a child shows low levels of arousal, they are perceived to have low tone, and may have flat and restricted affect, with a preference for passive and sedentary activities. They may also be described as “lazy” or “unmotivated.” Sensory seekers on the other hand, try to manage their low level of arousal by actively seeking excitatory sensory input.  They may even be described as the “life of the party.” Their movements are quick and might appear “disconnected” whereby they often miss their optimal level of arousal.  Trial and error of various strategies is the best way to differentiate whether a child is in a state of high arousal ‘shut down’ or low arousal.

Certain amounts and types of input and activity are required each day to keep our nervous systems functioning and regulated. As we are all unique, we all have different sensory preferences; however, regulating breath and providing heavy work activities are always beneficial. Heavy work provides input to the body through the muscles and joints by engaging in activities such as jumping, crashing, pushing/pulling, lifting, tumbling, and crawling, and deep pressure massage. Heavy work allows dopamine to be released, which overrides the stressful chemistry of cortisol, which is found when our body goes into fight or flight.

Information is based on a professional development I attended ‘The traffic Jam in my Brain” by Genevieve Jereb