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What?! Sensory Processing...What's that?

We, as human beings, take in information through our eight senses:

  • Vision (sight)

  • Auditory (sounds)

  • Olfactory (smells)

  • Gustatory (taste)

  • Tactile (touch)

  • Proprioception (sensations from muscles & joints)

  • Vestibular (sense of head movement in space)

  • Interoception (sensations from internal organs)

Sensory Processing refers to the way the body receives, analyzes and responds to the signals and sensations it receives from the environment. We all have unique sensory needs and preferences. Our senses work together to provide us with a general perception of ourselves in relation to our surrounding environments. Having multi sensory experiences where all of the sensory systems are working together is an important process for overall development.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder of the process by which we receive information through our senses, organize that information, and use it to participate and engage in everyday activities.

Children and adults who have sensory processing disorder struggle with detecting,interpreting and generating adaptive responses to sensory input. These differences are only considered a “disorder” when they significantly impact daily life in a ‘negative’ way. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) was originally called Sensory Integration Dysfunction. Those with SPD do detect sensory information; however, the sensory information gets “misinterpreted” or “mixed up” in the brain often creating responses that are ‘inappropriate’ within the context or environment that the person currently is.

SPD can feel like a traffic jam of information happening in the brain. A child or adult with sensory processing issues often responds to the environment in different ways. It may show up as being hypersensitive (over sensitive) and one may become overwhelmed more easily. It may also show up as hyposensitive (under sensitive) or under-reactive where you seek out sensory stimulation. It can even show up as a combination to these reactions, depending on the person and the environment. SPD creates difficulties with modulating sensory information.

What is a Sensory Diet?

A sensory integration plan or often called a “sensory diet” (and no it’s not about food although oral motor input may be involved). A sensory diet is a strategy designed to manage sensory processing. It involves sensory, physical activities and accommodations tailored to give each individual the sensory input they require to assist in balancing the sensory system. It provides an opportunity to help get into a “just right” state and to obtain an optimal state for learning, attention, socializing and behaving in a variety of settings/environments.

What does a “just right” state mean? For those who have a tendency to get overstimulated, a sensory diet can help them come from an overloaded state to feeling calm. If a child or adult feels or appears sluggish, lethargic or tired, a sensory diet can assist in them becoming more alert and active.

Many times those with sensory processing issues, are unable to recognize when they are not in the “just right” state. Being consistent in implementing a sensory diet is a key to helping those with sensory processing issues to become more self-aware and to begin self-regulating.

How do you know if a child could benefit from a sensory diet?

Here are just a few indicators:

  • Constantly on the go or being physically active to the point they can’t settle to a task

  • Looking tired, lethargic, sluggish or vague

  • Unable to settle after being in an active busy environment

  • Being restless in crowds or groups of people

  • Becoming “wound-up” after physical activities or when around a crowd

  • Disregard or not understanding personal space

  • Constantly touching people or textures

  • Having difficulty sleeping

  • Crave fast, spinning, or intense movement

  • Very high tolerance to pain

  • Seeks out jumping, bumping and crashing activities

  • Loves movement such as swinging, merry-go-rounds, slides, rocking

  • Being too rough in play

  • Has trouble modulating the tone of voice

  • Difficulty controlling impulses

  • Avoids hugs and cuddling even with family members

  • Tendency to bolt or run away when overwhelmed, stressed or in unfamiliar situations

Those are just a few indicators that may demonstrate that a sensory diet or sensory integration plan would be beneficial. A sensory diet or plan is specifically tailored to a child’s needs. Typically a sensory diet/plan involves an Occupational Therapist collaborating with parents, caregivers, teachers, etc to determine the types of sensory input the child requires based on a formal assessment as well as observations of the child’s responses in a variety of settings or environments. If you do not have access to a therapist, you can engage your child in some sensory activities , under your discretion. Not all strategies work the same all the time. There are variables, including the child's sensory processing at a particular moment, the environment and the demands on the child. Just know that if the activities that you are engaging in with your child don't appear to be working, it does not mean your child will not benefit from a sensory diet. Your child may need a unique sensory plan that can be assisted by a therapist.

More information on Sensory diets coming soon...

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-Trina Rice, OTR/L, MBe., CF

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