What is Sensory Processing?

Sensory processing is the ability to organise, and effectively and appropriately respond to the information received from our senses. It is fundamental to our lives but something that most of us take for granted.

When an individual has difficulty or trouble managing information that comes in through the senses, they can be referred to as experiencing sensory processing difficulties. Such difficulties can have a huge impact on an individual’s learning and the way they live their everyday life.

Our Senses

Most people understand that we have five senses – known as the external senses for making sense of the world outside our bodies:

  • Sight – what we see

  • Sound – what we hear

  • Touch – what we feel

  • Taste – what we sense in our mouths

  • Smell – what we sense with our noses

We also have internal senses that are as important;

  • The vestibular – spatial awareness;
    • Located in the inner ear
    • consists of the two structures within the bony labyrinth: the semi-circular canals and the vestibule as well as the membranes contained within them.
    • It is the main system for balance and movement, helping the body maintain its postural equilibrium
    • It is also very closely linked to vision being essential for coordinating the position of the head and movement of the eyes
  • Proprioception – external body awareness:
    • the sense that tells the body where it is in space
    • sensory receptors in our skin, muscles and joints that tell us where the different parts of our body are in space i.e.
      • to be able to write, we need to know where our fingers are and how to move them in relation to each other,
      • playing sport activities requires a lot of proprioceptive input
    • plays a large role in self-regulation, co-ordination, posture, body awareness, the ability to focus, and speech.
  • Interoception: internal body awareness
    • helps us to feel and understand what is going on inside our body
    • Sensory receptors inside our organs, including your skin send information about the inside of our body to our brain.
    • Helps with regulation of our vital functions like body temperature, hunger, thirst, digestion, and heart rate.
    • Is both conscious and unconscious
    • difficulties in this area can make self-regulation a challenge e.g. understanding when one is hungry or thirsty, when you have had enough to eat or if you need to go to the toilet.

What difficulties may an individual with SPD experience?

There are two types of sensory processing challenges;

  • those who suffer with oversensitivity (hypersensitivity) which can lead sensory avoiding individuals who avoid sensory input because it is too overwhelming.
    • E.g. dislike of bright lights, loud or high pitch noises, certain textures of fabrics
  • Those who suffer with under-sensitivity (hyposensitivity) – these are individuals who tend to be sensory seeking and look for more sensory stimulation.
    • always bouncing and jumping, touching, seeking contact or pressure

Sensory processing difficulties can be complex to understand as all senses function on a spectrum. This means that most people have a combination of hyper and hypo sensitivities meaning they can be over-sensitive in one area but under sensitive within another. This in turn can be affected by many other factors such as stress levels, lack of sleep, and nutrition to name a few.