Stacy Kramer, OT Reg. (Ont), Clinical Director at Toronto Children’s Therapy Center &
Behnaz Afrakhte, OT Reg. (Ont), Occupational Therapist
Sensory processing refers to the neurological process of how we interpret and integrate information provided by the sensations that come from within the body, as well as sensations from the external environment (for example, touch and taste). This process makes it possible to use our body effectively to perform purposeful behaviors within the environment. Our senses are like instruments in an orchestra, playing together in order to provide a cohesive, reliable and harmonious understanding of the world and how we fit into it. Another analogy – our senses fit together like a puzzle in order to form a complete understanding of who we are, where we are in space (am I standing or lying down?) and what is happening around us in our environment. Learning depends on our ability to process information from within our bodies (e.g. movement) and the environment (sounds and smells) to organize purposeful behavior. When pieces of the puzzle do not fit, there is a lack of cohesiveness between behavior and the presented stimulus or what is happening in the environment.
Sensory processing difficulties have a wide range of causes such as visual or auditory problems, developmental delay, abnormal development from inherited family conditions or autism spectrum disorders. Individuals who have a decreased ability to process sensations may in turn experience challenges with performance, learning and behavior.
For some children, sensory integration simply does not develop smoothly. Since they can’t rely on their senses to give them an accurate picture of the world, they don’t know how to behave or respond, and in turn they often have trouble learning and may even behave inappropriately. A child may avoid confusing or distressing sensations, or in contrast seek out a specific sensation. For example, a child who has difficulty integrating auditory sensation (sound) input may avoid unpleasant experiences at school, such as music class or the ringing sound of the school bell. Another child may want to experience tactile sensation in excess. All children enjoy exploring through their senses and seek a variety of stimulation (such as a soft blanket, their thumb, rocking back and forth, or warm hugs) in order to soothe themselves. All children seek movement to organize themselves. It is only when these seeking or avoiding behaviors are excessive and impede a child’s ability to participate in play or day to day activities that there is a problem.
While the complex, neurological puzzle of sensory processing difficulties is slowly being pieced together by professionals, parents of children who present with such issues may want to consider playing the role of detective and advocate. By paying close attention to the signs of possible sensory processing problems and taking such concerns to your child’s health care provider and teacher, you are taking a preliminary, yet imperative step forward in helping your child to be successful. And that my dear Watson is elementary!