What is sensory processing?
Sensory processing is how we take in and respond to the world around us. Our nervous system wired throughout our body receives messages from the sensory systems then we create a behavioral response to the sensations we feel.
It is the process of :
1. Taking in information through our sensory systems including the basic 5: touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. Plus the hidden senses: proprioception, vestibular, and interoception
2. Organizing and interpreting the sensations we feel in our brain
3. Making a behavioral reaction, or “adaptive response”, to the sensory input
This process happens automatically and at an unconscious level in typical processing individuals. Most people are able to take in and responds to sensations all day long without it interrupting their daily life.
In normal sensory processing, we are efficiently able to take in, process, and respond to multi-sensory input automatically while maintaining self-regulation.
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.