The Basics of Sensory Processing

What is Sensory Processing (sometimes referred to as sensory integration)?

Sensory processing is the moment by moment way we make sense of this crazy world we live in. It can be discussed in two categories, namely sensory processing and sensory modulation.

Sensory Processing

Our sensory organs (ears, eyes, nose, etc.) get information from the environment and send it to the brain where it is organized, processed and made sense of. Based on this sensory message the brain tells the body to react in a certain way. For example, when sitting down on a chair we bend our hips and knees, maintain our balance, lower ourselves slowly, shift to the front or back and stop moving if we feel the chair is correctly positioned underneath us. This process is called Sensory Processing. In other words we can say sensory processing is the process through which our bodies make use of sensations for everyday life. A lot of the time our bodies go through this process automatically, without us even realizing it.

Sensory Modulation

Waking up in the morning most of us feel a bit ‘slow’, we can describe our level of ‘alertness’ as being low; after a shower we feel more awake and we can say our level of ‘alertness’ is higher. As seen in this example our level of ‘alertness’ fluctuates throughout the day and is influenced to a great extent by sensory messages (for example feeling and hearing the water of the shower wakes us up). Most people are able to keep their level of ‘alertness’ from going too high or too low, maintaining a ‘just right’ level. This process of regulating your level of alertness in response to sensory messages is called Sensory modulation (SM). A lot of the time a person’s level of alertness manifests through their behaviour. For example, think of someone who is red in the face, shouting at others and throwing things around. It is clear that this person’s level of ‘alertness’ is too high. Someone whose level of alertness is too low may speak slowly and need a lot of motivation to start on a task. The child who is unable to regulate his level of alertness may fluctuate between over-reacting and under-reacting to sensory messages.

6 Sensory Processing Tips That You Can Use at Home

  • Predictability: Children with sensory integration difficulties will benefit from a predictable schedule. Try to spend a few minutes in the morning discussing the plans for the day.
  • Control the Environment: Children with sensory integration difficulties can easily become overwhelmed by too much visual and auditory input. By controlling the environment you can help the child to stay within his ‘just right’ level, enabling him to be more organized and focused. For example, limit the amount of unnecessary visual material you have hanging on the walls and ceiling, keep the light on when watching television, use only one electrical appliance at a time and play calming music such as Mozart during quiet time.
  • Put Them to Work: Hard work activities provide deep pressure that has a calming and organizing effect on the child. Try activities that involves pushing and pulling. It is a good idea to ask your child to help you with everyday tasks such as moving furniture when cleaning, carrying heavy parcels close to the body, pushing the trolley when shopping, sweeping, mopping and wiping surfaces clean.
  • Munch & Crunch: Eating crunchy or chunky food, chewing gum or sipping water from a bottle with a straw will also have a calming and organizing effect on the child. Try to include crunchy and chunky food such as apples, pears, crunchy cereal during breakfast.
  • Read Your Child: Children often make it clear what their sensory systems need. For example, a child who jumps or spins around, is telling you he needs activities that will allow him to do this in a safe and socially acceptable environment. At home you can create these opportunities for your child during play time, by play-wrestling, jumping on a trampoline or bed, creating fast-moving obstacle courses, etc.
  • Time-Out: For the child who becomes over-stimulated by the environment, provide opportunity for ‘time-out’ to help him regroup and become organized. Examples of ‘time-out’ can be a few minutes in his room listening to calming music or lying under a table or bed with pillows. Remember: ‘time-out’ should be taken by the child when he chooses, not given by an adult as punishment.

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