Sensory processing is the ability to organise information received into the brain from the senses both from one’s own body and from the environment around us. This ability to process and synthesise the sensory information, and to make sense of it, enables an individual to function at their optimum within their environment.
Sensory processing issues, sensory processing disorder or sensory integration disorder are terms used interchangeably to refer to individuals who have difficulty organising and dealing with the information that they receive through their sensory systems. Sensory processing problems can be found in those with Autism, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), a trauma history, developmental delay, and in those with no diagnosis at all. Sensory processing disorder is not a recognised disorder or diagnosis in its own right; it is more a description of atypical behaviours which may be found alongside another diagnosis. That said, there are many children experiencing sensory processing challenges who stand out because they demonstrate slightly different behaviours.
Sensory processing difficulties can be experienced by adults and children. However, here I will concentrate on how sensory processing problems may be seen in children in education.
When we talk about sensory processing, we are looking at eight different senses. The first five are obvious and require no explanation:
We also have three further senses that are not so well known:
Within our muscles and joints, we have tiny receptors that help to inform our brain where our body parts are. This allows us to know where our hand is when writing without having to look at it. We can tell where our hand is in relation to our trunk, and that it is holding a pencil. This is primarily as a result of the feedback from the proprioceptive receptors to our brain.
Within our inner ears, we have small, fluid-filled canals. The movement of the fluid provides feedback to receptors in the canals each time we move our head, which informs the brain of the direction of movement. The receptors can tell the difference between being upside down, spinning around, moving side to side, tilting our head, moving up and down, and moving forwards and backwards.
Our brain uses the proprioceptive and vestibular feedback to help plan movements, to coordinate and to maintain balance.
This is how our body tells our brain what is going on inside our body, if our heart is beating fast, if we are nervous with butterflies in our tummy, if we are hungry or if we are full.
When we talk about having sensory processing problems, we find children can fall into two different groups: those that are oversensitive to certain sensory stimuli and those who seek more of the stimuli. Broadly, we describe these children as sensory seekers or sensory avoiders.
These children will try their best to seek more and more of a certain sensory input. Their threshold for registration of the sensation is much higher than others – they are under or hypo-sensitive – meaning that they require much more of the sensory input for registration and recognition in order for it to be worthwhile.
These feelings may present as behaviours such as climbing up high on gym equipment, needing to rock on their school chair, chewing pens and pencils, enjoying smelling things with strong or meaningful smells, chewing on their clothes or enjoying eating crunchy and strong-tasting foods.
These children will try their best to try and avoid certain sensory input because it is overwhelming. Their threshold of tolerance of sensory input is lower than others – they are over or hyper-sensitive –meaning that it does not take too much of the sensory input for them to feel completely overwhelmed.
These feelings may present as behaviours such as finding labels in their clothing very frustrating, finding it difficult to sit too near to classmates, finding the noise in a busy classroom too overwhelming, eating a very bland diet and possibly preferring food from home.
Defining children in these categories is a little more complicated than it might appear, as a child may be a sensory avoider for one sense and a seeker for another. They may hate the smell of the school toilet, yet may seek vestibular input and like to swing, spin, or be upside-down more than their peers.
Sensory processing problems can have a big impact on accessing education, hobbies and interests and being able to function in everyday life. It is important for us to try and develop some understanding as to why some children display particular behaviours in relation to sensory stimuli and support them so that they can access education without these barriers.
In the accompanying resource, I outline some more typical behaviours associated with these sensory needs, and explore some techniques you can use with students in your classroom to help them regulate their emotional state.