Sensory Processing Difficulties

Sensory Processing Difficulties

What is sensory processing?

We have our five main senses everyone is familiar with- seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing. We also have vestibular, proprioceptive, and interoceptive senses.

  • Vestibular sense is our sense of movement. It is housed in our inner ear, helps us regulate our muscle tone and balance, and helps us coordinate our bodies.
  • Proprioceptive sense, which helps us figure out where our bodies are in space. We get this information through our joints and our muscles. "Heavy work" is a term used to describe deep impact to our joints and muscles; we can achieve this impact through jumping, crashing, climbing, or repetitive movements, like running. Our proprioceptive sense helps us to regulate our emotions and behaviors.
  • Interoceptive sense, which is our awareness of what’s going on inside our bodies. This includes determining certain feelings such as hunger, thirst, pain, or fatigue

Everyday, we continuously take in a variety of sensory information, process it, and determine how to respond to it. This is called sensory modulation. This information is closely tied to our arousal level and ability to participate in our daily tasks. While most of us do this with little thought or awareness, some children have a difficult time processing the sensory information that is received from their environment and can respond to that information in atypical ways. Children who cannot appropriately respond to sensory information often have difficulties because their thresholds for tolerating and/or accepting sensory input vary.

What are sensory thresholds?

We can think of our sensory system as a cup. The average person has an 8 ounce cup, which they can fill up and empty out throughout the day efficiently. They can easily keep their cup from overflowing because the average amount of sensory input is just right for them. However, some children have a 12 ounce cup, and the normal amount of sensory information doesn’t feel like enough. These children need more sensory information from their environment to be able to stay calm and ready to learn and participate. On the other hand, some kids may have a 4 ounce cup, and the normal amount of sensory information is really overwhelming. These children need help developing coping strategies to regulate their sensory systems more often so that they can appropriately soothe themselves to maintain appropriate levels of emotional response and focus to get through their day.


What are some signs of sensory processing difficulties?

Sensory difficulties can exist on their own, or in conjunction with other conditions. Is your child…

  • Extra active or a very fast mover
  • Unaware of their own strength (easily breaks toys or plays too rough with others)
  • Frequently touching people and objects
  • Frequently chewing on non-food items
  • Seemingly unaware of personal space
  • Avoidant of touch and physical contact
  • Defensive towards clothes and certain textures
  • Nervous around playground equipment
  • Avoidant of getting messy
  • Appearing to be in their own world
  • Frequently missing their name being called or directions spoken to them
  • Unaware of messy hands or twisted clothes
  • Frequently unpredictable
  • A very selective and anxious eater


If my child has sensory processing difficulties, what will treatment look like?

Occupational therapy sessions will focus on regulating the sensory system, which is part of the nervous system. Regulating activities can include a variety of different modalities. What works to regulate one child doesn’t always work for the next, so a variety of sensory supports will be used. Your child’s occupational therapist will also give you suggestions for home to carry over the sensory input they are getting during their sessions.