Sensory Processing or Sensory Integration

From the SPD Foundation website

Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into responses. For those with Sensory Processing Disorder, sensory information goes into the brain but does not get organized into appropriate responses. Those with SPD perceive and/or respond to sensory information differently than most other people. Unlike people who have impaired sight or hearing, those with Sensory Processing Disorder do detect the sensory information; however, the sensory information gets “mixed up” in their brain and therefore the responses are inappropriate in the context in which they find themselves.

Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD (originally called Sensory Integration Dysfunction) is a neurological disorder in which the sensory information that the individual perceives results in abnormal responses.  A more formal definition is: SPD is a neurophysiologic condition in which sensory input either from the environment or from one’s body is poorly detected, modulated, or interpreted and/or to which atypical responses are observed. Pioneering occupational therapist, psychologist, and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.

Treatment of Sensory Processing Disorder or Sensory Integration

Occupational therapy (OT) for SPD in children is fun! During sensory-based OT sessions, the therapist and your child interact in a sensory-rich environment with lots of swinging, spinning, tactile, visual, auditory, and taste opportunities that seem to a child more like a giant playground than a therapy center. Sessions are subtly structured so your child is challenged but always successful in completing each activity.

When occupational therapy is effective, children improve their ability to accurately detect, regulate, interpret, and execute appropriate motor and behavioral responses to sensations so they are able to perform everyday "occupations" in a functional manner. These occupations include playing with friends, enjoying school or work, completing daily routines such as eating, dressing, sleeping, and enjoying a typical family life.


During the course of treatment, the therapist continually evaluates each child's abilities in several areas summarized as "A SECRET" in Sensational Kids, Dr. Lucy Jane Miller's definitive book on Sensory Processing Disorder in children.

Attention: Is there a way to enhance sustained or divided attention to people and activities around the child?
Sensation: Is there a way to modify the child's responses to sensory input?
Emotion: What emotion is the child experiencing, and can these emotions be regulated?
Culture: What part of the family's culture (habits and routines) can be changed to avoid challenging situations?
Relationship: Is there something in the relationships experienced by the child that is causing his or her responses? For example, does the child need closer support or need more space?
Environment: What in the environment is not optimal for the child? How can those environmental factors be modified?
Task: What is troubling the child or difficult about the task at hand? How can the task be modified so that it is not so problematic?

In other words, the focus in therapy and in natural settings when sensory challenges occur is to first examine the factors contributing to the observed challenge and second, to modify or use the other "SECRET" factors to affect the problem area.

The goal of OT for children is always on developing automatic and appropriate responses to sensation so that daily occupations can be competently performed and social participation fostered. As these competencies increase with effective treatment, social participation, self-esteem, self-regulation, and sensorimotor abilities also increase, and other family goals and priorities are achieved

A more extensive explanation of the A SECRET treatment model may be found in Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children With Sensory Processing Disorder by Lucy Jane Miller, PhD, OTR.

Find out more about treatment and research from the STAR Center at www.spdstar.org

SENSORY INTEGRATION AND EVERYDAY LIFE: Signs and Symptoms

  • Difficulty being at the “just right “ level of alertness
  • Spending much time being “under alert” or “over alert” rather than calm and alert
  • Physical clumsiness
  • Stooping posture, needing propping up
  • Difficulty learning new movements or skills
  • Activity level unusually high or low
  • Poor awareness of own body and where it is in relation to others and things
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch, movements, sights, sounds or tastes
  • Seeking out sensations, touching and fidgeting, trouble sitting still
  • Poor self esteem
  • Social and/or emotional difficulties

IN ADDITION, THE PERSON MAY BE:

  • Easily distracted
  • Impulsive
  • Have poor attention
  • Delay in development of speech, language and understanding
  • Delay in reaching developmental milestones for
  • movement and coordination
  • Specific learning difficulties
  • Specific perceptual difficulties
  • Poor self care skills: washing, dressing, eating

An important step in promoting a person’s development and their ability to integrate sensory information is to recognize that it exists and that it plays a vital role in development.

 Getting help is important if you suspect someone has sensory processing difficulties.

 This will usually involve a referral for a specific assessment and therapy by a Pediatric Occupational Therapist with advanced training in sensory integration and other professionals.