Sensory Processing

Sensational Kids OT – Sensory Specialists


What is Sensory Processing?

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Types of Sensory Processing Disorders:

What role do the senses play in development?

What some of the indicators of a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

Diagnosis of a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD):

Treatment for SPD:

What techniques may be used during the treatment process?

What are the expected outcomes of the treatment?



What is Sensory Processing?

‘Sensory Processing’ is the way in which the nervous system receives sensory messages and generates them into responses. Majority of us are born with the capacity to receive sensory information and organise it effortlessly into appropriate behavioural and physiological responses. For example if we are cooking toast and smell it burning we don’t have to stop and think what to do. We unconsciously interpret the information into a behavioural response of rushing to the kitchen and turning off the toaster. Simultaneously our body produces a physiological response; increased heart rate, rise in blood pressure, fine sweat. (Adapted from Miller, 2006)


What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is an inability to process information received through our senses for generating appropriate responses. The result of this is a decreased ability to respond to sensory information in order to behave in a meaningful & consistent way. It can also lead to difficulty in using sensory information to plan and organise our own body & make sense of the environment in which we function thus impacting on our ability to learn. (Adapted from Miller, 2006).

Types of Sensory Processing Disorders:

(Taken from Miller, 2006 ‘Sensational Kids’)

There are 3 main types of sensory processing disorders:

1. Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD)

2. Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD)

3. Sensory Discrimination Disorder


1. Sensory Modulation Disorder:

The child experiences difficulty processing sensory information into appropriate behaviours/responses which match the intensity of the sensory information (Miller, 2006)


There are 3 types of SMD:

I. Sensory Over-Responsivity (sensory defensiveness) This is where children respond more intensely & faster for longer durations e.g. becoming really upset when touched by another child standing in line (Miller, 2006)

II. Sensory Under-Responsivity – These children show less of a response to sensory input than would be expected for the situation, they take longer to respond and require more intense input before they even respond e.g. having a high pain threshold (Miller, 2006)

III. Sensory Seeking – These children have a intense craving for sensory experiences and will actively seek this out, often in ways that aren’t matched or appropriate to the environment e.g. running around during group time (Miller, 2006)

2. Sensory-Based Motor Disorder:

This is where the child has trouble controlling, planning and supporting their movements into a smooth, coordinated and sequence way.


There are 2 types of SBMD:

I. Dyspraxia – These children have difficult processing sensory information to create physical, unfamiliar or sequenced movements e.g. difficulty riding a bike (Miller, 2006)

II. Postural Disorder – These children have difficulty maintaining enough control of their bodies to meet the demands of a given motor task e.g. difficulty remaining in an upright sitting position for writing tasks (Miller, 2006)


3. Sensory Discrimination Disorder:

This is where the child experiences difficulty distinguishing between similar sensations. They need additional time to process sensory information and their capacity to perceive the information as quickly and naturally as other children do is reduced. For example they may unable to up their buttons or find their pencil in their pencil case without looking (Miller, 2006)

Children can present with a combination of sensory processing patterns or may only have one of the above discussed difficulties.


What role do the senses play in development?

The senses provide us with essential information about our own body and the environment in which we function. They provide us with information about where our body is in space, how our body is moving, what impact the environment is having on our body, what is happening in the environment and help us in knowing how to effectively respond to task and environmental demands.


Let’s think about just the simple action of walking down a step something which we are able to do without looking or even thinking about. How do we know where our body is, how do we know to shift our balance between our feet, shift the balance of our body, know when our foot has touched the step without even looking? We know because each of our sensory system is telling us what is happening and helping us to generate appropriate responses.


Our sensory system is the foundation of our skill development and is like laying the foundations for a house. Whilst some structures may be able to be developed without the support of the foundations it does not become a structurally sound ‘house’ without good foundations. Just as we need a foundation to build a house we need effective sensory processing for the development of our skills. If we are unable to process information on this foundation level we are required to pull in higher cognitive functions to help make sense of our world. This increased cognitive effort is difficult to sustain and can take away the free cognitive space left for working on more complex tasks e.g. handwriting, riding a bike etc.


What some of the indicators of a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

It is important to note that we all have sensory problems it only becomes a disorder when the impact is chronic and/or disrupts our everyday life (Miller, 2006). There are many ways in which a SPD can present below are just some of the difficulties:

    • Heightened reactivity to sound, touch or movement
    • Under-reactivity to certain sensations e.g. not noticing name being called, being touched, high pain threshold
    • Seeking increased amounts of auditory, tactile or movement input e.g. making noises to self, constantly touching objects/people, being “on the go”
    • Appears lethargic/disinterested; appearing to mostly be in own world
    • Difficulty regulating own behavioural and emotional responses; increased tantrums, emotional reactive, need for control, impulsive behaviours, easily frustrated or overly compliant
    • Easily distracted, poor attention and concentration
    • Poor motor skills; appears clumsy, reduced coordination, balance and motor planning skills, poor handwriting skills
    • Difficulty mastering activities of daily living e.g. dressing, tying shoe laces, self-feeding
    • Poor sleep patterns
    • Restricted eating habits or picky eater
    • Difficulty engaging in grooming tasks e.g. hair-brushing, hair-washing, nail cutting etc
    • Loves movement and appears to have a need for intense pressure, continually seeking this out e.g. constant spinning, running around, jumping, crashing in objects/people
    • Avoids movement based equipment e.g. swings, slides etc
    • Appears floppy or has ‘low muscle tone’, tires easily and is often slumped in postures
    • Does things with too much force, has big movements, moves fast, writes too light or too hard
    • Delayed communication and social skills, hard to engage in two-way interactions
    • Prefers to play on their own or difficulty in knowing how to play with other children
    • Difficulty accepting changes in routine or transitioning between tasks
    • Difficulty engaging with peers and sustaining friendships

Diagnosis of a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD):

Parents of children with SPD often find it hard to get a diagnosis. They intuitively know that there is something wrong for their child however unless they encounter a trained professional their concerns may be overlooked, misinterpreted or dismissed. When parents do get a diagnosis they report that this is the first time that someone has truly understood their child and given meaning to the difficulties which their child is experiencing and which they encounter as a family.


Finding an Occupational Therapist who is trained in Sensory Integration is an essential step in gaining a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder. Not all Occupational Therapists are trained in this area and therefore may not address the underlying causes of some of the mre evident difficulties e.g. handwriting, attention, social, play and motor difficulties. Persevere in finding an Occupational Therapist and a team of professionals who are trained in assessing your child to determine if they do have a sensory processing disorder. ‘Sensational Kids OT’ is able to provide a comprehensive assessment to look at sensory processing and if appropriate a diagnosis of SPD.


Treatment for SPD:

OT is fun and most children will enjoy participating in OT sessions despite how hard they are working! The aim of therapy is to impact the development of how the body responds to the sensory messages it receives and how to produce meaningful responses. Therapy also aims to educate parents, caregivers, families, childcare workers and teachers to provide a context which is conducive to the child’s sensory processing style.


Under the guidance of a therapist, the child actively takes in sensation through a playful context. The therapist will help to activate the neural pathways and provide organization within the central nervous to produce more regulated responses. It aims to provide a neural platform which promotes the development of more complex skills by freeing up the higher cortical levels which are currently being used to process sensory information. The child responds favourably to SI treatment, because the nervous system is pliable and changeable. Rather then addressing the symptoms we are addressing the underlying causes which are essential in sustaining change. Therapy teaches the child to succeed—and they love it!


The specific goals of occupational therapy using a sensory integration framework are to improve the person’s social participation, self-esteem, self-regulation and sensory-motor abilities.


What techniques may be used during the treatment process?

The therapist will provide a variety of therapy techniques and these will be individualised to your child’s specific sensory needs, the context in which they need to function and the dynamics of their social environment. Some of the techniques used may include:

Therapressure Brushing Protocol

Therapeutic Listening®

Implementation of a sensory diet through a home program

Implementation of the Alert program to promote to self-regulation

Intense and direct sensory integrative therapy

Oral-motor programs

Environmental modifications to support a child’s sensory processing patterns



What are the expected outcomes of the treatment?

There is no known cure for SPD however there is the capacity to evoke change. Some of the changes which parents, teachers, childcare workers and families can expect to improvements in the following areas:

Attention & focus

Self-regulation with responses being better matched to their environment

Postural Control

Praxis (motor planning), balance & coordination

Fine motor skills

“Evenness” or more regulated emotional & behavioural responses

Oral motor control and improved eating habits

Communication, articulation and social skills

Increased engagement, interaction and development of play skills

Visual motor integration

Improved sleep patterns

Increased learning opportunities

Becoming less or more responsive to sensation received