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Sensory Processing… What in the world does it all mean?!

The concept of sensory processing and sensory processing disorder has rocked the pediatric world over the last few years. Many of us are left scratching our head and asking…. “What does Sensory Processing mean?” “Does my child have a disorder?” “How will therapy help my child?”

First, it helps to have a general understanding of what is meant by the term sensory processing. Basically, sensory processing refers to a person’s ability to register, attend, assign a meaning to, and respond to our basic senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. On top of processing all that incoming input, there are also internal sensations that we must respond to which detect changes in our body position or our need for nourishment and voiding of our bowel/bladder. The term sensory processing refers to this entire process. When talking about Sensory Processing Disorder, we break this process down further into what we call sensory modulation and sensory discrimination. Sensory modulation refers to a person’s sensitivity to different sensations and sensory discrimination refers to a person’s ability to detect specific qualities or changes in various sensations (hard/soft, fast/slow, direction of motion etc.). Understandably, a person’s level of sensitivity to incoming sensations is closely related to their behavioral and emotional regulation and a person’s ability to discern specific changes or qualities of sensory feedback is closely related to a person’s level of motor coordination. Since children's sensitivity and subsequent tolerance to various tastes, textures, and sounds is a hot topic right now, we figured it was important to take some time and explain what exactly sensory modulation is and how it can be impacting your child!


Remember that sensory modulation refers to a person’s sensitivity (responsiveness) to sensations. People that are identified as having difficulties with sensory modulation can be over responsive to, under responsive to, avoidant of, or constantly seeking, sensory input.


Imagine a small cup representing your ability to notice and make meaning of incoming sensory input and a flowing faucet representing all incoming sensory experiences. It isn't hard to see how it doesn't take long for that cup to overflow!

This is a good representation of the term “overly responsive to input”. Over responsiveness means that a person registers certain input sooner, at a greater intensity, and for a longer duration than others (i.e. has a small cup). Over responsiveness to sensory input often impacts a person’s attentional and emotional regulation capabilities. In theory, the over responsive person has less in their “neurological reserve” for attention and emotional regulation since their "cup" is already overflowing with sensory information. People that are over responsive to sensory input may show patterns of avoidance behaviors in an attempt to limit their exposure to sensory input, or they may be so distracted by incoming sensory input that they appear over-aroused and irritable.

An over responsive person may frequently:

-Show distress over loud, but normal, everyday noises: toilet flushing, vacuum cleaner, garbage disposal

-Show distress over grooming activities (hair cutting/washing, nail clipping, tooth brushing etc.)

-Be upset or distracted by certain clothing textures, seams, tags

-Become easily distracted or distressed in new and active environments

-Be a picky eater


Now imagine a large cup representing your ability to notice incoming sensory input and a flowing faucet representing all incoming sensory experiences. It isn't hard to see how long it can take for that cup to feel full.

This is a good representation of the term “under responsive to input”. Under responsiveness means that a person requires a greater intensity and longer duration of certain input for their neurological system to take notice. People that are under responsive to sensory input may appear under aroused and less engaged with their environment, missing opportunities for learning and engagement.

An under responsive person may frequently:

-Seem accident prone

-Seem to do things in a harder way than necessary

-Loose balance easily

-Bump into objects/people

-Have a high pain tolerance

-Be unaware of mess on their hands or face

-Seem oblivious within active environments (“in their own world”)

-Have difficulty registering the need to eliminate their bowel/bladder, resulting in urinary or bowel “accidents"

On the other hand, the under responsive person may demonstrate a pattern for seeking sensory input to try and fill up their cup, causing them to appear hyperactive or inattentive.

A person who seeks input may frequently:

-Look for opportunities to crash or fall even though they have good balance skills

-Jump from one activity to the next so much that it interferes with daily routines


Our level of sensitivity to various sensory input and our subsequent sensory aversions and preferences influence our choice of friends, hobbies, and jobs. This propensity to like or dislike certain people, activities, clothes, or foods based on these preferences is normal. But, for some people, the aversion or preference of certain sensory input due to their level of sensitivity to said input is so significant that it begins to limit their ability to participate in their home, school, or work environment. A disorder exists when the restrictions that result from these significant preferences or aversions greatly impact one’s ability to either develop or exhibit appropriate social, emotional, behavioral, or attentional capabilities.


Through interview and observations, your therapist will determine the frequency and extent to which a person exhibits certain behaviors that indicate their level of sensitivity lies outside of normal range. Then, they will analyze how this impacts a person’s conduct, social-emotional regulation, and attention. Often, a pattern for being over responsive to, under responsive to, avoidant of, or seeking certain input can be determined. Knowing this pattern and your sensory preferences/aversions pave the way for two important avenues of treatment: implementation of environmental modifications and individualized sensory integration therapy. Environmental modifications simply mean altering a person’s environment so that it facilitates success with challenging tasks. Sensory based environmental modifications often involve changing a person’s environment to minimize the frequency, intensity, or duration of aversive sensory input while maximizing the frequency and duration of preferred, calming sensory input. Individualized sensory integration therapy aims to improve sensory processing skills through guided activities that challenge one's ability to respond, or adapt, appropriately to sensory input. It is through this active involvement and exploration of sensory based activities that we facilitate improved responses to various sensory experiences. However, it is important to remember that even with environmental modifications and individualized therapy, a person will always demonstrate trends for preferring or disliking certain sensations. Keep in mind that the goal of therapy is to reduce the extent to which these preferences or aversions interfere with daily functioning so that an individual may engage successfully in school, work, and society.


No! Here at Abilities, we believe that a Sensory Processing Disorder can exist separately from an Autism Spectrum Disorder. We like to say that while most children with ASD have a disordered way of perceiving and responding to sensory input, not all children that respond poorly to sensory input have Autism Spectrum Disorder. We are passionate about providing all children that could benefit from sensory integration therapy a safe and fun place to become more mature and efficient responders to sensory input.

If you think your child might be struggling with Sensory Processing give us a call. Our experienced therapists are here to help shed light on this all too often confusing topic!

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