What is Sensory processing?

I get asked a lot about sensory processing disorder or sensory sensitivities by parents wondering why their child is over sensitive to noise, or won’t eat crunchy foods and many other presentations of sensory problems.


First of all many parents have trouble getting a diagnosis of sensory processing problems and they want to know why. Why doesn’t my Paediatrician/ Psychologist or in some cases, Occupational Therapist recognise my child has sensory processing problems? Well, the main reason is Sensory Processing Disorder is not recognised!  The book that is used to record all the possible diagnosis a Psychologist/ OT etc can make ( the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM 5) does not include sensory processing disorder.

Largely because there has not been enough research in this area for them to include it in the book. This does not mean it does not exist however. As many parents of a child with Autism will know the sensory sensitivities and problems can be crippling to a child’s daily interactions with their environment and with the people in it. The good news is that In the USA they are currently advocating for SPD to be recognised in the DSM 6.

 sensory processing

So can we still identify sensory processing and if so how?

The good news is Yes we can. There is enough research to have developed tests that measure a child sensory sensitivities and what we call their sensory profile. The Sensory Profile is this formal measure. This test is able to measure all the sensory areas. It measures if a child is more sensitive in certain areas or if they are less sensitive. For example a child may be oversensitive, or more sensitive to noises, this child might notice the air con humming in the background if the classroom, they might notice a child on the other side of the room tapping their pencil on the desk. This humming noise, and the pencil tapping becomes a distraction for them. They can’t filter it out.

Another child might be tactile oversensitive, for example they go to the beach on a relatively non windy day but complain about the sand hitting their body, they hate it and cant stand the sensation or they can’t stand wearing certain clothes because of the way it feels on their skin, it might t-shirts or jumpers with high necks, or wool on their skin or maybe just plan cotton on their body.

Then you might have a child who is tactile under responsive.  They might not notice touch of someone or something on their skin, they may not notice extremes in temperature and often dress inappropriately for the weather. Whereas an auditory under response may not notice someone speaking directly to them, or they are overly tolerant of loud noises.

The fact is that whether a child is an over responder or under responder this can impact on how they interact with the environment, and in some cases may get children labelled as “challenging” or “behavioural” when really they are doing their best to cope in an environment they are experiencing a little different to others.

Autism and Sensory Sensitivities

noise headphones

The sensory system in children with Autism is wired differently than others. They either have difficulty filtering information in the Central Nervous System or  they might have trouble with the brain and how it interprets the information.. For example when you step on a thumb tack you experience something similar to the pain response, though for some children with Sensory Processing  problems the message can be missed or just become jumbled.

Here’s what it looks like PAIN – brain and Central Nervous System work together to deliver message to the brain that you are in pain, this then sends a message to muscles to say lift foot off.

pain CNS

But in a child with Sensory Processing Problems it might look like this – Brain and Central Nervous System do not work together well. There are many reasons for this, one might be that the pain message does not reach the brain or that it reaches the brain with more intense response than is actually occurring, or their brain does not send a message to the muscles in response.


Why some children display sensory based behaviours

What can often happen is a child gets labelled as having “challenging” or disruptive behaviours and these behaviours and then addressed through typical behaviour management strategies such as redirection, rewarding good behaviour etc. But sometimes these behaviours are driven by a child sensory problems and they are using these behaviours as a way of coping with these sensory issues. In this case typical behaviour management strategies are unlikely to work – we need to address the sensory issues to address the behaviour. For example

Some children may be sensitive to noise, but they try to be the loudest in the room. By doing this they are trying to control the volume of noise, because this is better than noises you can’t control happening around you at different volumes and tones

Another example is of hyperactivity in a child can actually be caused by sensory overstimulation, they may actually fear of an item or sensory input. Sounds strange but if you hear noises all at the same level and can’t filter any of them out it becomes easy to become frightened of noises, especially the loud ones.

So if you suspect your child may be having difficulty with sensory processing there is something you can do about it. An Occupational Therapist experienced in sensory processing is able to conduct a sensory assessment and identify exactly where your child sits with each sense and, more importantly identify strategies to help them cope with these sensory differences.

To meet with one of our Occupational Therapists and book a free 30 minute consultation call us on 1300 856 617.


Some further reading for those of you who may be interested

Sensory sensitivities and Autism


More about sensory processing disorder