Sensory Processing – What is it?

On my final university placement I found my passion for sensory modulation. I have difficulty explaining what overcame me but by the end of that placement I had immersed myself so deeply in sensory practices that I had written a sensory modulation group program, conducted a pamper day that utilised beauty products to explore sensory modulation and had assessed almost half of the ward for sensory processing disorders. Basically, I was spellbound by the powers of sensory modulation!

There have been questions in research as to whether OT intervention strategies for sensory processing disorders do or do not work. It is not my place to convince you either way, but I will present the facts and my opinions (you have been warned, I am biased) so that you can make up your own mind.

Sensory processing is the way in which we interpret the world. Technically our nervous system receives messages from our senses; sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, vestibular (balance) and proprioception (sense of where your body parts are in space and in relation to each other) and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioural responses. Sometimes these responses to sensory input are different from the “normal” and that is where Occupational Therapy and sensory modulation comes in to help us to regulate these responses. It is important to note that it is not only children who experience different responses to sensory input but that adults also have difficulties modulating their responses to the world.


For our purposes I’m going to talk about 3 different versions of responses to sensory stimuli:

1) Over-responsive: typically people who experience over-responsivity only require a small amount of sensory input for a reaction. A mild stimulus may lead to feeling of being overwhelmed, annoyed, or hyperactive and generally calming stimuli are required for this person to regain feelings of control

2) Under- responsive: people in this category generally do not recognise or respond to sensory input, which presents as the individual having low energy or being disinterested in the world around them.

3) Sensory seeking/ sensory avoiding: Sensory seekers can’t get enough of sensory input. These are often the young children who are found rolling around on the shag pile carpet, or the adults who when shopping must touch everything in the store in search of different textures. On the opposite side of the spectrum are the avoiding types who go out of their way to limit the amount of sensory input that they deal with and as a result often present as being uncooperative and driven by rules and rituals.


I know that I have unleashed a whole lot of technical information in the above paragraph but I think that its important to help us to build a base understanding of sensory processing and why it is such an important topic for us to talk about. Remember that it’s O.K. that everyone processes the world differently. I don’t like certain smells and tastes that members of my family absolutely LOVE! Its normal and its what makes us individual, but understanding these likes and dislikes can help us from a therapy point of view to engage a person and empower them to take control of the world around them.

In my next blog I will talk about how OT’s can use a sensory approach in their practice to help to engage, motivate, calm and elevate clients in order for them to get the most out of their therapy. I will also provide some examples of where I have seen sensory modulation work wonders in practice. From today the most important things to note are that:

a) Everyone experiences sensory input differently
b) Children aren’t the only ones who experience sensory processing difficulties. Adults do too.
c) Understanding the individual’s sensory needs can help us to tailor our time with that person to make it as beneficial and meaningful as possible
d) I am OBSESSED with all things sensory!

Until next time,