If you are an OT, sensory processing is a term that you probably know quite well. It’s something I have heard a lot about during my internship, but have never really understood what it means entirely. So here it is:
Sensory processing is the ability to process information received by the senses, and to respond appropriately to this information. Many children can have a dysfunction of this process – sensory processing dysfunction believe it or not – meaning that they struggle with information received from one or more of their senses. This can be either an over reaction, or an under reaction to certain senses.
We all already know the five senses; sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch (often referred to as tactile in this context). However there are two more that not every body is aware of.
Vestibular processing is the ability to know where we are in space – the positioning of our body. The vestibular system responds to accelerated and deccelerated movement, teaching us directions. This system forms a basis for all of our sensory experiences, so it is very important. So, children with vestibular processing difficulties can find it very hard to keep still, or may not like movement at all and become tired quite easily. But this is an important sensory issue to tackle as it influences a lot of other body functions; including muscle tone, posture control and balance.
Propreoceptive processing also plays a major part in knowing where we are in space. The propreoceptive system involves muscles, and the sensations we get when they are contracting and stretching. It works alongside the vestibular system, by helping us to process information on HOW we are moving, instead of WHERE. Input of this type can be calming, such as stretching before exercise, but children who have propreoceptive processing dysfunction can have problems with balance and often appear to be clumsy, may have grip problems when completing tasks, and also struggle with executing movements in their body to complete a task (such as climbing over an obstacle).
The main way these issues are tackled nowadays is through sensory integration – proposed by A Jean Ayres in the 1960’s. Sensory integration itself refers to the neurobiological process of being aware of the senses, and being able to effectively use our body’s in our environment. For example, it is sensory integration that is allowing me to sit here right now and type this – to ignore the noises around me and focus on what I am writing, to know where my fingers are to press the correct keys on my keyboard, to be able to sit still with my legs crossed and not react to the breeze caused by people moving around me, and so much more…
The main aim of sensory integration is to focus on the areas of sensory processing that the child finds difficult. This is simple to asses – most OT’s can actually discover these by watching how the child choses to play. However more in depth analysis can be made through questionnaires filled out by parents and teachers, or home and school visits. Then, using certain play techniques (such as music for children with auditory issues, or swings for children with vestibular issues) the therapist can help the child become more or less sensitive to their senses – allowing them to function more appropriately in the outside world.
As sensory processing is fundamental to bodily functioning, it is a very important issue to tackle. And it can help children to improve in so many different areas, in school and at home.