Happy Learners - Sensory Processing Disorder

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An Introduction to Sensory Needs

Our Senses

In order for us to interact with our environment we rely on information coming in from our senses. This includes the five senses that most of us our familiar with: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. It also includes our other senses like balance, pain, temperature and movement.

Sight - ophthalmoception
Hearing - audioception
Taste - gustaoception
Smell - olfacoception
Touch - tactioception
Temperature - thermoception
Movement - proprioception
Pain - nociception
Balance - equilibrioception
Vibration - mechanoreception
Time
- chronoreception

Sensory Perception

Our senses are working all the time though we are rarely conscious of most of them. We only think about them when they reach a threshold that grabs our attention. So we become conscious of smell when we burn a slice of toast or our balance if we walk across a rope bridge. Our conscious attention tends to be focussed on things that we can see and hear and so our perception of the world is heavily based on these two senses.

Sensory Processing

This is the ability of the central nervous system to assimilate, process and organize appropriate responses to information. For survival reasons we have to be able to react to any threat detected by our senses. We therefore continually monitor all the information coming in from our senses and make decisions about what is important and what can be safely ignored. So when trying to sleep we do not 'hear' a ticking clock but might be startled awake by the sound of a creaking stair. As well as identifying dangers, we also need to filter sensory information so that we pay attention to things that have relevance to what we are doing. So when talking to a person in a crowded room we can listen to their voice whilst ignoring the conversations of others. The monitoring is still going on and if someone in the room mentions your name you become suddenly aware of their conversation. All of this monitoring, filtering and sorting of sensory input and then deciding what we need to pay attention to is called sensory processing.

Sensory Processing Differences

In a sample of one hundred normal healthy individuals, with all their sense organs working properly, there would be differences in how each person processes sensory experiences. This is because; just like other human characteristics such as height; there is natural variance in sensory processing and the attention that we give to each of our senses. If we now rank our 100 healthy people from least sensitive to most sensitive then the 50th person would represent the average. Everyone else would experience sensory information in a more or less intense way than this person. For most people these differences would be very slight but for a few people it would make a significant difference. Where this difference means the individual is less sensitive this is known as hyposensitivity. The opposite is hypersensitivity for people who perceive sensory input more intensely. However, the situation is also more complex than described. Within one individual there is a natural waxing and waning of sensory sensitivity and this can be influenced by many different factors such as mood, tiredness, anxiety, motivation, stress and the sensory load. This is often referred to a person's arousal level. The final consideration is that a single individual can be both hypersensitive in some sense organs and hyposensitive in others.

Sensory Processing Disorder

For a few people the differences in the way they process sensory information is so severe that it has a significant impact on their ability to cope with everyday experiences. This can have a significant impact on their behaviour as they either avoid or seek out sensory experiences. However, the question of whether someone is more or less sensitive may be more about how they actually respond. For example, two people feel equally cold but only one of them gets up and puts a jumper on. We could argue that the person with the jumper on is more sensitive to the cold but this is not necessarily true. It could be that they are less able to moderate their response to the stimulus and that is the reason why they act. This ability to regulate the degree, intensity and nature of a response to a sensory input is known as sensory modulation.

Sensory Defensiveness

It is natural for all of us to avoid unpleasant sensations. For someone who is hypersensitive they are likely to find lots of everyday experiences unpleasant. This leads them to try and avoid contexts when they experience this. Things that most people would be able to tolerate can be overwhelming for hypersensitive individuals and they take action to protect themselves from them. For example, this can be seen in children holding their hands over their ears around everyday noises like hand dryers, vacuum cleaners and school bells.

Sensory Seeking

We make sense of our world through sensory input. We make decisions about what is important and attend to it. In individuals who are sensory hyposensitive, they are constantly receiving less powerful signals and consequently struggle to make sense of the world. They therefore need to boost the signal when they can and they do this through sensory seeking behaviours such as constant movement; turning the volume up; frequent cuddling or playfighting etc.

Sensory Needs

In the average classroom there will be several children who would be more able to cope with the demands of the school if they had additional support with managing their sensory needs. The level of support required will depend on the specific needs of the child but effective intervention combats underachievement, behaviour difficulties and poor self-esteem.

Sensory Diet

An individual with sensory needs will need a specific tailored programme of support. This will recognise which senses are hypersensitive and which are hyposensitive. It will try to maintain arousal levels within an optimum range for learning, socialising and coping with everyday experiences. Advice is often sought from occupational health professionals.

Further information and resources:

See also Managing Sensory Needs page.

Pupil Sensory Profile - a simple one-page profile for capturing a child's sensory needs.

Sources:

Cheng, M., & Boggett-Carsjens, J. (2005). Consider Sensory Processing Disorders in the Explosive Child: Case Report and Review. The Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review, 14(2), 44–48.
Ghanizadeh, A. (2011) Sensory Processing Problems in Children with ADHD, a Systematic Review Available at: doi: 10.4306/pi.2011.8.2.89 Accessed: 29th September 2015
Laurie, C. (2013) Sensory Strategies London: The National Autistic Society
Shimizu, V., Bueno, O. & Miranda, M (2014) Sensory processing abilities of children with ADHD Braz. J. Phys. Ther. vol.18 no.4 São Carlos July/Aug. 2014 Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/bjpt-rbf.2014.0043 Accessed: 29th September 2015