What is Sensory Processing?

The human body is amazing! From the moment we are born it automatically kicks into a full functioning multifaceted working machine. It’s astounding how everything comes together and just works! Well for some of us anyway. 

Sensory Processing:

Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.

Now that we have a textbook definition of what sensory processing is let’s play a game. Question: How many senses make up our sensory processing?

Did you think 5?

I’m sorry but the answer is 7! 7! and if just one isn’t working correctly…well if you’re exploring what Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) means, then you’ll start to have an idea of the impact.

Internal and external environment is processed through the following

  1. Vision (ocular)*
  2. Hearing (auditory)*
  3. Taste (gustatory)
  4. Smell (olfactory)
  5. Touch (tactile)*
  6. Movement (Vestibular)*
  7. Joint and Muscle Awareness (Proprioceptive)*

The stars next to each of the senses are areas in which my child struggles; some areas more than others, but they all interrelate.

SPD can affect people in only one area or-like my child-in multiple. While no child will experience SPD the same as another, they are put into two groups, and in some cases, they can overlap. There are the Sensory Seekers and Sensory Avoiders. For example, my child does not like loud, noisy environments-avoider, where on the other hand he seeks deep pressure-like hugs or tightly fitted clothing-seeker.

What causes SPD?

The STAR Institue for Sensory Processing Disorder and their collaborators have been studying this very question. And so far their research suggests that it is inherited. So all you parents out there asking “was it something I did?” the answer is no. It is a DNA thing. Other factors are complications with a pregnancy or birth, as well as some environmental factors. (for more information check out spdstar.org it’s fantastic!)

Bottom line

It is unfortunate that children-like my own, suffering from SPD, are often times misdiagnosed – and therefore often inappropriately medicated- for ADHD. SPD can look like Autism Spectrum Disorders or even ADHD. I was told by two teachers that my child could have ASD or ADHD (good thing they aren’t doctors.) Remember, YOU- the parent! not Grandma, or Auntie or even the teacher knows your child better. If you feel like your child could have any kind of sensory delay speak with your child’s doctor. Be prepared to hear that it is “normal.” My pediatrician is an expert when it comes to diagnosing ear infections, not so much when it came to SPD-he totally missed it. We actually avoided our doctor altogether and took our child to get full evaluations from a psychologist. Whatever you decide to do, know that you are the only one that can/will advocate for you child.

photo credit: Johannes Plenio

6 thoughts on “What is Sensory Processing?”

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. You are right, children with SPD can also have an additional diagnosis of a Spectrum Disorder and/or ADHD. We were told that my son had one or the other and both by several different teachers and principal. Remember that the schools are not doctors. A teacher or administrator can only make suggestions to help urge parents to seek medical evaluations. The purpose of my posting strictly about SPD is to build awareness and to stop bucketing children that have only SPD into the same groups as children who have a Spectrum Disorder or ADHD because SPD can present as both, and still be only an SPD.

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