Knowledge is power!
This is the first in a series of blog posts designed to:
- Help you understand your child a little better,
- Determine if he or she has sensory processing problems, and
- Help you make decisions about the way forward.
This post explores sensory processing and examines its role in the daily life of a child. We’ll look at how everyday activities can be disrupted when a child has sensory processing problems. Perhaps you’ll recognize your child in the descriptions.
Let’s start by defining what we mean by ‘sensory processing.’
What is sensory processing?
Simply put, sensory processing is the ability to take in information through these individual sense systems:
- Vestibular (balance/movement)
- Proprioception (body position)
- Tactile (touch)
- Auditory (hearing)
- Visual (seeing)
- Gustatory (taste)
- Olfactory (smell)
— and then combine that information in a way that makes sense, either responding in good time or ignoring information that isn’t important.
Why is sensory processing important?
Processing information from the sensory systems is how we gather information internally and from the world around us and then combine that information to explore and learn. Sensory processing is a building block of overall development.
Research shows us that a lack of sensory experiences results in a variety of physical, cognitive, emotional and physiological difficulties. Conversely, adding sensory experiences results in positive change in these areas. As a clinician and a person with sensory processing problems, I have had the privilege of experiencing these positive, life-enhancing changes, both with the children and families I work with and personally.
In order to understand the importance of sensory processing, we need to know what ‘typical’ sensory processing is and how our sensory repertoire develops. From this we can see how sensory information becomes a tool for exploration and learning.
Developing functional sensory processing skills
When a child begins to explore the world, a myriad of sensory experiences begin to be stored in the brain. Let’s examine the touch system as an example of typical sensory processing.
A child’s skin comes into contact with a variety of textures. Some of these experiences are repeated and, over time, the child gets used to that specific touch experience. If sensory processing is maturing as it should, information about the touch experience is stored in what we’ll call the ‘safe memory file’ in the child’s brain. As more touch experiences are introduced and the child begins to explore her world through touch, new information is compared with familiar past experiences and the safe memory file expands.
If a sensory experience is unpleasant, or associated with a difficult/traumatic event, it actives the ‘NOT safe’ memory response. This is vital because it protects the child from harm.
If an experience isn’t recognized, it’s processed as new so may not move into the safe memory file.
As the child grows, the touch system matures and becomes detailed, resilient and flexible. New tactile experiences are compared to stored tactile information and recognized as safe or unsafe. This determines whether a child will continue to engage in a particular experience or not. In this way, the child begins to shape his own experience and learning becomes, in part, self-directed.
For a child with touch-related processing problems, the safe memory file is likely to be very small. Familiar touch experiences may not be recognized or may be in the NOT safe memory file. This lack of relevant information, and the misfiling of safe items as NOT safe, has a significant impact on the child’s ability to develop skills in many areas. This causes the self-limiting of learning and experience.
The same is true for each individual sensory system.
When there’s a sensory processing problem
For a ‘sensory kid,’ particularly a child with touch processing problems, dressing and other self-care skills like bathing, hair brushing and tooth brushing can cause significant problems.
Although the touch experience of self-care may be familiar due to regular repetition, the brain may have stored it in the NOT safe file or not recognize it at all. Experiencing new touch information puts the whole system on a higher alert state because of its potential to be NOT safe.
Imagine every touch experience in a simple activity like dressing or brushing your teeth registering as new, potentially unsafe or NOT safe. Self-care becomes a challenging, uncomfortable or painful experience.
Multi-sensory processing problems
Children often experience problems with more than one of their sensory pathways. Here are some examples of life from the point of view of a child trying to navigate his world while experiencing multi-sensory processing problems:
- Group situations/settings. A child with sensory processing problems has to manage her own system as well as anticipate what other children will do. The child has to be able to sit still, filter out extraneous sounds, like talking, the AC, lights buzzing, doors opening and closing, etc. The child must cope with being jostled by students when in line or being touched unexpectedly. This causes the child’s sensory system to go on high alert which is exhausting and may cause withdrawal, overwhelm, behavioral outbursts and stress. Being on high alert over long periods impacts a child’s ability to learn, remember and recall information.
- Academics. Learning requires directed attention, understanding, remembering and recalling information. Learning letters and numbers and knowing how to act in social situations occurs best when a child is in a relaxed alert state. For a child with processing problems, it may not be possible to bring all of the components together in time. He might miss a critical instruction from his teacher. He might make a mistake because he missed a step or is confused about the information conveyed. This adds more stress and the child may begin to anticipate the difficulty and appear anxious or overwhelmed, dislike school or refuse to go.
The above examples are thumbnail sketches of everyday activities in the life of many children. For anyone who doesn’t understand the role sensory processing has in all our activities, the behaviors that sensory processing difficulties cause can be confusing and frustrating and interfere with family life.
In our upcoming blog posts, we’ll look at each of the sensory systems and recommend strategies, checklists and other resources for identifying problems and supporting your child. We’ll discover the difference between sensory processing problems and behavior problems and look at sensory processing as an aspect of your child’s skill-building arsenal.
Start now with a more in-depth look at the individual sensory processing systems: read Sensory processing — what is it and why is it important?