What is sensory processing?
Sensory is feeling! We must understand sensory processing in order to understand human behavior as it is foundational to all aspects of development, learning, and well-being. Sensory processing occurs in every person and refers to the way our nervous system takes in information about ourselves and the world around us, make sense and label the sensations we are feeling, and then have a motor or behavioral response to it.
It is the process of :
1. Detecting a sensation through our sensory systems including the commonly known systems touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing, plus the hidden senses of proprioception, vestibular, and interoception. This is known as sensory registration or your ability to notice the sensory information coming from your body and the environment.
2. Organizing and labeling the sensation you feel to put a meaning to it. When we do this we are building knowledge of the world around us and store it as memories of sensory data, like file folders in the brain (Was it hard or soft? Fast or slow? Did I like the way that made me feel or not?). We then use these libraries of information to help us navigate new experiences by using this stored sensory data to compare and contrast new experiences with old ones to help us determine if we will be safe or not. This is described as sensory integration.
3. Having a response to the feeling that may require a behavioral reaction or not. Typically, when you feel something that makes you feel safe or you really like you want more, when you feel something that makes you feel threatened or you don’t like you want less, or if you feel something that your body does not need to take action on you are able to ignore the sensation and move on with life. This is called having an adaptive response.
All systems send a constant feed of sensory information about our bodies and the environment we are in to help us determine if we feel safe or not. We rely on these systems to work cohesively together to give us accurate information so we can engage in daily life.
In normal sensory processing we are able to efficiently take in, process, and respond to multi-sensory input automatically while maintaining self-regulation. However, sometimes processing sensation does not come so effortlessly affecting a person's well-being. It can lead to dysregulation resulting in behavioral issues, anxiety, depression, developmental delays , academic challenges, and disrupt functioning in everyday life. This is why understanding our individual unique wiring is vital to understand our behaviors and respond to them in a way that nourishes our sensory health!
How do the sensory systems develop?
During infancy a newborn’s sensory systems are developed, however they have poor ability to organize these sensations; therefore, the information has very little meaning to it. By experiencing sensations over and over again through relationships with caregivers and sensorimotor/exploratory play, infants and toddlers develop a secure attachment with caregivers and learn about object affordances and characteristics, gravity, and how to move their bodies through space. However, children will only move to explore and create reliable stored memories of the world around them, like file folders of information, IF they feel safe in a calm, regulated arousal state, are provided the opportunities to engage and explore, and have the foundational postural skills to do so.
It is essential caregivers provide a responsive relationship and co-regulate through stressful situations in order to foster sensory discriminative development.
Infants use sensory experiences to make sense and build knowledge of the world/environment around them. This processing is called integration and changes the wiring of the brain. This type of play is purely motor play without symbols, essentially just feeling sensations over and over and putting meaning to it. As this happens children start to make schemas (stored memories like file folders) about the world that they will then draw upon later and use to help them navigate new situations and experiences. They gradually integrate their eight senses and are able to modulate their responses to them resulting in more control over their behaviors and interactions. This is mastered within the first three months of life and continues to refined through 3 years of age.
Reference: (2016). What is sensory processing? [Class Handout]. STAR Institute, Centennial, Colorado.