Sensory Processing & Learning

January 29, 2019

by Kay E. Born, OTR/L, SIPT, BCN

As parents we all want the best for our children. We want them to develop into happy, healthy well-behaved and well-adjusted individuals. It is important then to understand how children learn.

We are born with billions neurons, but very few connections between them. The connections are the way that our brain and body talk to each other, and the way that we as human beings make sense of the world. The first 7 years of a child’s life are referred to as the years of sensorimotor development. Our first experiences are all sensory in nature – we are rocked, swaddled, talked to, sung to, touched, kissed, fed, gazed at, and bounced, only to name a few. Young children do not have abstract thoughts or ideas; they are mainly concerned with sensation and moving their bodies in relation to the sensation.

Sensory processing is the ability to register and respond to sensory input in a meaningful way in order to build skills, interact and play with others, behave in a socially appropriate way and engage in daily life tasks. It doesn’t matter what you are doing (for example-learning to write your name, playing with a friend, brushing your teeth or taking out the trash) it all depends on the efficient integration of sensation to complete the tasks successfully. Most of us don’t think much about this process and it goes along pretty smoothly. However, for some children, their ability to process sensation is impaired, resulting in challenges in many of their lives. They may have deficits in any part of the sensory integrative process – such as detecting sensation, filtering, organizing or giving meaning to what they experience. This may result in delayed motor skills, poor social-emotional skills, challenges with daily living skills and problems with attention, academics and behavior.

We have all been taught the “5 senses”, which include seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. But, there are actually more senses than that! We have our vestibular sense, which tells us about gravity, our head, neck and eye movements and our sense of balance.  Next is our proprioceptive system, which gives us information about our bodies and movement. The last sense is interoception, which gives us information about the internal state of our bodies, whether we are hungry, thirsty, have to go to the bathroom, or are tired.

Some children may have difficulty modulating sensation. They may “over-respond”, “under-respond” or be “sensory seeking”. For other children it may affect their postural control and body awareness, making them clumsy and with little awareness of where they are in space. And yet others may have difficulty with discrimination, which is the ability to differentiate between different sensations, such as whether someone tapped you to gain your attention or pushed you, or whether the word the teacher just used was “cat” or “cap”. It may affect one sense alone or may involve all of their senses.

When children aren’t able to process and use sensation efficiently, it can be very difficult for them and may affect the entire family. Sensory Processing Disorder is a “hidden disability”. You aren’t able to see sensory processing taking place, so we must observe the behavior of the child for clues as to what is happening within the nervous system. Many children that have challenges with sensory processing are misunderstood as having behavior problems.

Occupational Therapists are the professionals that most often address sensory processing challenges. Make sure your therapist has the appropriate advanced training in treating sensory processing disorder. There are many resources available if you think that your child may have sensory processing challenges.


Sensory Integration and the Child by A. Jean Ayres

Sensational Kids by Lucy Jane Miller

The Out of Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz – Sensory Therapies and Research Center