Sensory processing drives behaviors and is foundational to all aspects of development, learning, and well-being.
Why should we care about sensory health? Because sensory processing underpins all aspects of how we interpret the world as humans! It is what makes you you and me me. It gives us individuality deciding what we like and dislike in our world. If we can understand how our sensory processing drives the behaviors we engage in, it can help us understand why our babies and children do what they do even when it feels like there is no rhyme or reason to it.
Sensory is FEELING!
Let's first break sensory processing down to simple terms: 1. you detect a sensation 2. you put a feeling to it to make sense of what you felt 3. you have a response to the feeling that may or may not require an action. Humans do this unconsciously all day long and there is A LOT more to it than what you simply touch, see, and hear. Lets say you are sitting on the sofa reading this blog. Take a moment to bring awareness to all the sensations you are feeling. You might feel the pressure of your body touching the sofa on your legs and back, gravity has you adjust your posture appropriately to keep yourself from falling out of the seat, your hand knows just the right amount of force to apply to efficiently hold your phone as you read, the sounds of the TV or your family talking in the background that you ignore, the light coming off your screen producing the images that you see, the smell of coffee that you are holding without spilling in the other hand also telling you not to drink yet because it still might be too hot, and then the taste when it finally hits your mouth. All of that sensory data is being taken in and processed by you every second of every wakeful moment of the day!
So back to the 3 steps:
Detecting sensation means you are receiving sensory data from one of your eight sensory systems (we will dive into the different systems another time). In therapy terms we call this sensory registration.
Putting a feeling or meaning to sensation means you are organizing the sensory information in the brain. 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. We use this stored sensory data to compare and contrast new experiences with old ones to determine if we will be safe or not. Think of your baby during those first few years of life getting into everything, touching everything, putting everything in their mouths, climbing everything, and so forth. It is in the first few years of life we are building these sensory file folders the most, so we must allow children MANY opportunities for unrestricted, free movement and play in order to make sense of the world around them (more to come on this later, as well). In therapy terms we call this sensory integration.
Responding to what we felt is when we take action on what we are feeling and where the behaviors we engage in take place. Was it pleasurable so I want more? Was it stressful so I want less? Or was it something my body is able to ignore and move on with daily life. In therapy terms we call this the adaptive response.
In normal sensory processing, we are efficiently able to 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!