Sensory processing refers to how the nervous system receives stimuli through the senses, analyses the information, and then turns these into appropriate responses. Different stimuli are received through the classic senses for visual (sight), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste) and tactile (touch), inputs. However, stimuli are also received from the less acknowledged senses of proprioception (positional awareness of body parts) and vestibulation (coordination of balance and awareness of gravity).
In children with Sensory Processing Disorders, sensory stimuli fail to get processed into the appropriate interpretations in the brain and consequently, the affected person will be unable to properly relate to the sensory information. This dysfunction could make a person appear to be experiencing insufficient or too much feedback from the environment compared to other people in the same context. Sensory Processing Disorders can create challenges in going about normal everyday-routines that unaffected people regularly take for granted. Some of the resulting issues can include clumsiness, behavioural problems, hyper-activity, anxiety, stress, academic failures and social frustrations.
Un-diagnosed and unsupported children with Sensory Processing Disorders are likely to be misunderstood and there is a great tendency for them to be ignorantly perceived as being dull, clumsy, annoying or ‘strange’ by people who are unaware of the individuals’ hidden developmental challenge. Against this background, victims might respond with anxieties, aggression or withdrawals and have difficulties in forming social relationships. Sensory Processing Disorders affect people in different ways. While someone might show over-responsiveness to a particular stimulus another could show under-responsiveness to the same. A child may have sensory processing disorder in just one area but sometimes multiple presentations are involved in the same person.
People with this type of sensory issue will over-respond to sensations compared to what is considered ‘normal’. Some children in this category may find regular clothing texture, ordinary physical contact, ambient light, average sounds, or even some conventional tastes to be quite unbearable such that they feel as if they are being intolerably assailed with ‘sensation overload’. In a sort of ‘sensory defensiveness’, such persons may try to minimize stimuli inputs through withdrawal methods such as avoiding being touched, eating only bland food items or covering ears with the fingers to block out seemingly loud sounds that others do not consider to be offensive. People with this issue are likely to have difficulties participating in group or mainstream activities in order to minimize exposures to many sensory information that others consider routine and normal.
Conversely, some other people show little or no responsivity to stimulations, including pain or extremes of temperatures. A child in this category might often harm himself and other children inadvertently since he is not properly aware of normal impacts and have high threshold for pain. In a sort of ‘sensory craving’ phenomenon, some children in this group will intensely seek out sensation with an enthusiasm that is in the extreme. For instance in cases of tactile hypo-sensitivity, the person may feel inclined to touch virtually everything or be overly affectionate in order to adequately feel the sensation of touch that unaffected people normally take for granted. In a humourous way, this phenomenon reminds me about one of the wonderful kids I saw at Children’s Developmental Centre (CDC) who always grasp people’s limbs eagerly and touch them rather curiously as if analysing a scientific specimen. I have also observed another interesting child here who seems to have peculiar attraction for bright lights and is usually fascinated by transparent glass windows through which he can view the sunny exterior. Children with sensory hypo-sensitivity issues are likely to be rather fidgety and may be ignorantly dismissed as being disruptive. A child’s difficulty in perceiving subtle differences between similar letters or symbols (e.g. n and h, + and x, etc.) could be indicative of visual hyposensitivity while an unexplained difficulty in understanding or remembering instructions that was heard could be suggestive of auditory hypo-sensitivity and both can have negative impacts on academic performance in unsupported children who are affected.
Treatment intervention for Sensory Processing Disorder is through Sensory Integration Therapy. This involves a form of brain training and sensory skills ‘exercises’ to be performed under the supervision of an Occupational Therapist. The Children’s Developmental Centre (CDC) has a Multi-Sensory Stimulation room specially dedicated for this purpose. Early intervention is important for best treatment outcomes in children with Sensory Processing Disorders.