Sensory Processing in Children
by Kay E. Born, OTR/L, SIPT, BCN
As parents we all want the best for our children. We want them to develop into happy, healthy and well-adjusted individuals. It is important then to understand how children learn.
We are born with 100 billion neurons, but very few connections between them. The connections are the way that our brain and body talk to each other and the way that we as human beings make sense of the world we live in. Approximately the first 7 years of a child’s life are referred to as the years of sensorimotor development. Our first experiences are all sensory in nature – we are rocked, swaddled, talked to, sung to, touched, kissed, fed, gazed at, and bounced, only to name a few. Young children do not have many abstract thoughts or ideas, they are mainly concerned with sensation and moving their bodies in relation to the sensation.
Some children are able to process this sensation and learn almost effortlessly. But some children are not efficient with processing sensation, which makes building skills much more difficult. They may have challenges with detecting, filtering, organizing or giving meaning to what they experience. This may result in delayed motor skills, poor social-emotional skills, challenges with daily living skills and problems with attention, academics and behavior.
First it is important to understand our senses. We have all been taught the “5 senses”, which include seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. But did you know that there are actually more senses than that? We have our vestibular sense, which is our sense of balance. Proprioception, which is our sense of our bodies and how to move them. The last sense is our interoception, which gives us information about the internal state of our bodies.
Sensory processing is the ability to register and respond to sensory input in a meaningful way in order to build skills, interact and play with others, behave in a socially appropriate way and engage in daily life tasks. It doesn’t matter what you are doing i.e., learning to write your name, playing with a friend, brushing your teeth or taking out the trash, it all depends on the efficient integration of sensation to complete. Most of us don’t think much about this process and it goes along pretty smoothly. However, for some children, their ability to process sensation is impaired, resulting in challenges in many areas of their lives, including school, .
Some children may have difficulty modulating sensation. They may “over-respond”, “under-respond” or be “sensory seeking”. For other children it may affect their Postural Control and Body Awareness, making them clumsy and with little awareness of where they are in space. And yet others may have difficulty with Discrimination, which is the ability to differentiate between different sensations, such as whether someone tapped you to gain your attention or pushed you, or whether the word the teacher just used was cat or cap. It may affect one sense alone or may involve all of their senses.
When children aren’t able to process sensation efficiently enough to use it in skill building, friend-making, school-attending, it can be extremely difficult. The reason is because it is a “hidden disability”. You can’t see sensory processing taking place. There is no test. We have to observe the behavior of the child for clues as to what is happening within the nervous system. That is why it is always wise to ask “what is driving the behavior?”. There are many resources available if you think that your child may have sensory processing challenges.