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Sensory Sensitivities

What is sensory processing?

Sensory processing is the ability of the brain to interpret, organise and respond appropriately to information received from the eight sensory systems in the body. It is an automatic response, which helps us to cope with all the demands of the daily environment. All of the information received about the world comes to us from our senses i.e., taste, smell, sight, sound, also from our sense of touch, movement, the force of gravity and body position. 

All of our senses have receptors that pick up information which is sent to our brain to put together and understand. Cells in our skin send information about light touch, pain, temperature and pressure. Our inner ear detects movement and changes in the position of our head. Receptors in our muscles, tendons and joints give us awareness of our body position. Our internal organs have receptors which enables us to identify our internal state e.g. when we are thirsty, hungry or full, when we need to use the toilet, when we are tired, feeling nauseous, feeling hot or cold.

The eight sensory systems include:

  • Visual (light, darkness, colour, movement)
  • Auditory (sound, pitch, volume of noise)
  • Tactile (touch sensations)
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Gustatory (taste)
  • Vestibular (movement and balance)
  • Proprioception (enables us to identify our body position in space, location of our limbs and body without looking)
  • Interoception (internal senses which allows us to recognise our internal state e.g. when we are hungry, thirsty, need the toilet)

Sensory modulation

Sensory modulation is the brain’s ability to process and balance incoming sensory information effectively and produce a response that is appropriate to the intensity of the sensory input and environment. The sensory systems all need to work together for sensory processing to be effective. Sensory modulation enables us to decide on what sensory information is important to attend and respond to, and to filter out unimportant information. It assists the person to be alert and able to learn and to control behaviour.

Sensory processing difficulties

Sensory processing difficulties also known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is the term used to describe when the brain is unable to process and balance incoming sensory information and respond appropriately i.e. the child may be under-responsive to a sensation, over-responsive to a sensation, seek sensory input, or display a mixture of these. 

Children with sensory processing difficulties experience sensations differently to other people. Children who are over responsive to certain senses e.g. light, touch, sounds can easily become overwhelmed by these sensation. They may experience certain sensations as uncomfortable or even painful. Children who are under responsive to senses will seek sensory input e.g. they may rock or spin to obtain vestibular input, or seek out rough and textured surfaces for tactile feedback.

Sensory processing difficulties can affect every part on the child’s life including their daily occupations such as self-care tasks, learning, and their ability to cope in different environments. 

Children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD, ADHD often experience sensory processing difficulties. Their sensitivities may be different and will vary in intensity.  

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