What is Sensory Processing?

We all learn through our senses. Sensory processing is how we transform sensory information from within our own bodies and the external environment into messages we can act on. It’s tempting to think of senses (touch, sight, sound, movement, body awareness, taste, and smell) as separate channels of information, but they work together to give us a reliable picture of the world and our place in it.

Right now your senses are working together. You hear background sounds and feel your clothing, chair, and the floor beneath your feet. You resist gravity to stay seated. You see letters on the screen. You filter out unimportant sensory input so you can make sense of what you are reading. If you occasionally lose focus because your shirt label is itchy, you may have a mild sensory issue. If you keep sliding off your chair, look away when you hear any noise, feel like your shirt is hurting you, or the words you are reading pulsate, you may have sensory processing disorder, also known as sensory integration dysfunction. Sensory issues affect all kinds of people—from those with developmental delays, attention and learning problems, autistic spectrum disorders and other diagnoses to those without any other issues.

Common Signs of Sensory Processing Problems

Out-of-proportion reactions to touch, sounds, sights, movement, tastes, or smells, including:

Motor skill and body awareness difficulties, including:

Oral motor and feeding problems, including:

Poor attention and focus: often “tunes out” or “acts up”

Uncomfortable/easily overstimulated in group settings

Difficulty with self-confidence and independence

Children in ball pit

Many such behaviors are typical at certain stages of development. Many toddlers dislike fingerpaints. But a 10-year-old who has a meltdown during every art project is a different story. A strong dislike of itchy fabric or brushing teeth, shyness with strangers, or fear of a noisy goat at the petting zoo can be “typical” for a younger child as long as these sensory experiences do not interfere with day-to-day function. A child with sensory issues has responses to such experiences that are way out of proportion, consistently showing behaviors that can’t be dismissed.

Explore Your Child’s Unique Sensory Portrait

Print out our Sensory Checklist to understand your child’s unique sensory portrait. Because school presents a different set of challenges, consider asking your child’s teacher to fill it out too. If your or your child’s teacher checked off a lot of “avoids,” “seeks,” or “mixed,” get an evaluation with an occupational therapist(OT) specially trained in assessing and treating sensory processing issues.

The good news is that if your child has problems with sensory processing, there’s a lot you can do about it, especially if you work with a knowledgeable OT. As the OT enhances your child’s ability to process sensory input, you can build your own sensory smarts so your child feels more understood, while making your home, parenting approaches, and daily activities more in sync with your child’s sensory portrait.

Raising a Sensory Smart Child is filled with practical advice, real-life tips, and parenting solutions you can useimmediately to help your child at home, school, and out and about.

Sensory Processing Class

Sensory Processing Master Class on DVD contains six hours of information on behavior, emotion, and learning in children with sensory processing challenges with Lindsey Biel and Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide.