What is Sensory Processing?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • In a previous post, Sensory Sensitivities in Teens, I gave some examples of how sensory processing disorder can interfere with a teen's daily life with some quick tips on how parents can help manage their child's sensitivities. In this post, I'll explain a little more what sensory processing is and the differences between effective and ineffective sensory processing.


    What is Sensory Processing?

    We use our five senses to see, hear, touch, smell and taste. The information we get from our senses helps us interpret the world around us and tells us how to react to the stimuli we interact with. For example, if we touch a hot stove, we react by understanding that stoves can cause pain and we avoid touching a hot stove again. We also use senses to help us feel better, listening to a favorite song, lighting a candle with a pleasant aroma.

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    Sensory processing is different in each person; some like cool weather while others prefer the heat of the summer; some like the taste of liver and others find it distasteful; some like loud, energetic music while others prefer soft classical music. Our brains process stimuli and interpret it based on previous experiences but scientists also believe much of how we process stimuli is automatic, without much thought or awareness of how we use our senses.


    Some sensory input actually creates physiological changes in our body. When overwhelmed by stimuli in our environment our heart rate might increase, we might sweat, feel nauseous. These physical reactions are a way of letting us know that our senses are overloaded.


    Senses help us make sense of our environment and are used in the learning process. For example, when different senses are involved in early learning children learn quicker and retain more information. If a teacher introduces sight, sound and touch when learning the alphabet, young learners are more apt to remember the different letters and what sound each makes.


    Effective Sensory Processing


    Our use of our senses to interpret, understand and react to our environment generally helps us to adapt to changes. For example, when the weather turns cooler, we feel cold and use a jacket to adjust to the cooler temperatures. Normally, we learn from these experiences and, as we see weather reports, we know that we should put on a coat when the temperature goes below a certain point.


    Our sensory input also helps us to plan and co-ordinate body movements. For example, when a baby cries, we move toward him and reach out our arms to pick him up. The sensory input of hearing the baby cry set up a series of movements in reaction to the cries. Most of the time, our reaction is instantaneous and we do not think of the actual planning that takes place, we simply react to the stimuli.


    Although those with effective sensory processing can appropriately react to different types of stimulus, they usually have sensory preferences. This might be apparent in learning styles, some may be visual learners, others auditory learners. Or it could be apparent in career choices or hobbies. A wood working hobby shows a preference for tactile, or touch, sensory input, a career in music shows an auditory preference. Learning about your, or your child's, sensory preferences can help in learning, activity and career choices.


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    Ineffective Sensory Processing


    Those with ineffective sensory processing may be either hypo- or hyper-sensitive, many people with autism or Asperger's syndrome are hypersensitive but also have certain hyposensitivies as well. For example, they may not feel differences in temperature as quickly. Jerome, a teen with AS, rarely felt cold. During the winter months, he was often outside in just a tee-shirt, stating he wasn't cold. While his parents were at first alarmed and fought with him to put on a jacket, they eventually accepted that he simply didn't feel the cold the same way they did. Instead of fighting they instituted a rule, if the temperature went below freezing, he needed to wear a sweatshirt. Because he generally followed rules, he would grudgingly wear the sweatshirt on cold days.


    Often, children and teens with autism and AS are hypersensitive and overreact to various stimuli. A person with auditory stimuli may have trouble tuning out noises; even the low hum of a fluorescent light can be so bothersome they feel highly agitated. Your child may be tactile, or touch, sensitive, having a hard time when others give him a hug or can't stand the feeling of tags in his clothes or even wearing long sleeves feels uncomfortable. Or your child may be sensitive to strong smells, avoiding washing with soaps because the smell of different soaps makes him nauseous.


    Our senses and sensory processing helps us make sense of the world. For children and teens with sensory processing disorder, the world can be a daunting place. Understanding how and why certain stimuli cause your child to be overloaded can help you help him manage his hypo- and hypersensitivities. 




    "About SPD," Modified 2011, Sept 25, Staff Writer, Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation


    "The Next Attention Deficit Disorder?" 2007, Nov 29, Claudia Wallis, Time Magazine


    What is Sensory Integration? 2005, Raising a Sensory Smart Child, Lindsey Biel, Nancy Peske, Penguin Group 


Published On: September 25, 2011