Around here, we talk about sensory processing all the time: sensory processing disorder, sensory processing differences, sensory-seeking, sensory-sensitive.
But what does it mean? What is sensory processing, and how does it actually work?
Understanding the way that sensory processing happens for everyone, as well as the different ways it can happen for neurodivergent individuals, is key to understanding the very important role of sensory processing in our children’s behavior.
What you’ll hear in this episode:
- What is actually happening in our bodies and brains to process sensory information
- Why the brain is more efficient with familiar routines
- How neurodivergence or sensory processing differences can affect sensory processing
- How using a multisensory approach to preparing our kids can affect sensory processing
Want to solve the mystery of how your child’s nervous system works? Do you want to be more intentional and effective in your regulation strategies?
The 8 types of sensory input
Yes, eight! Are you surprised? We’re all very familiar with the main five senses, but in the world of occupational therapy, there are three more that are vital to understand. Here is a quick run-down:
- Olfactory (smell)
- Gustatory (taste)
- Tactile (touch)
- Vestibular (in charge of sensing how your body moves through space)
- Proprioception (in charge of sensing how your limbs and muscles are positioned in space)
- Interoception (in charge of sensing your internal sensations)
Click on the links for a deeper dive into these very important senses.
Making sense of it all: input to output
Here’s a simplified look at the sequence of sensory processing:
- Register. Sensory receptors (any of the 8 above) notice some sensory information from the environment (including your internal environment if we’re talking about interoception) and take IN that information through the receptors in the body.
- Transmission. That sensory input information travels up the nerves to your brain for it to process.
- Discrimination. The brain “processes” and interprets the information by identifying and localizing the input. What is this information? Where is it coming from?
- Organization. The brain decides what to do about this information. Is it important? Meaningful? Dangerous? Pleasurable? Noxious? Threatening? What do I have stored in my short term memory or long term memory (trauma?) about this sensory input?
- Action. The brain sends out a signal to the body to either take overt action or simply remain calm, regulated and ignore the input. If it needs to take action it will activate the sympathetic nervous system response (fight/flight).
Sensory processing in action
Let’s take these concepts into the real world, and I’ll show you how this works. Let’s say your kids are playing on the playground while you’re chatting with a friend.
Here’s the sensory stimuli: you hear a child cry. Follow this stimuli through the sequence:
- Register. Your auditory receptors inside your ears take in the sound of crying.
- Transmission. Then it sends that information up to the auditory processing center of the brain.
- Discrimination. The brain is able to identify it as the sound of a child crying and helps you localize it to somewhere behind you.
- Organization. It labels this signal as important and jump-starts your sympathetic nervous system to put your body into action. This includes things like increased heart rate, dilated pupils and increased breath rate.
- Action. It sends a signal out to your body that allows you to sit up, turn around, focus your vision to where your child is.
Depending on what you see, that process starts again: What do you see? It sends that image up to your brain. If your child is safe, your brain signals cues of safety, and your heart rate decreases, you breathe slower and turn back around to continue your conversation with your friend.
How long does this process take? Not long at all. Maybe a single second or less!
What’s more, this sequence of sensory processing goes on all day long, constantly.
As easy as riding a bike?
When we’re doing motor tasks, for example, sensory processing is a part of a feedback cycle that goes on and on.
Here’s what that looks like: When you’re riding a bike, your proprioception, vestibular, tactile and visual receptors are all taking in lots of information as you pedal and move forward. All those senses at once give information to the brain, and your brain processes it so that you know how hard you need to pedal. You then receive the feedback from the resistance and speed of the bike that allows you to keep going. Then, when you start losing your balance or hit a bump in the road, your brain processes that too and then reacts by having you put your foot down to catch yourself from falling— all, again, in a matter of just milliseconds!
Brains are more efficient with familiar routines
It sounds like this is a lot for the brain to be handling, all day, everyday, every second. But when we’re around sensory information that is familiar to us, this process is extremely efficient and takes little energy from our brain.
Consider your drive to school, for example. It’s a drive you’ve made a million times, and it takes virtually no cognitive effort to make this drive safely. So you can feel free to listen to music, think through a problem with your partner, talk to someone sitting next to you. Throw some construction and a detour into the mix, and suddenly you might find yourself turning off your music, tabling your thoughts, or pausing your conversation. Suddenly your brain resources are less available to do those non-driving tasks, and you have to spend more energy thinking about alternate routes.
This is because when we’re around sensory information that’s unfamiliar, unexpected, or out of order, this process takes a bit more energy.
This can also apply to being out of routine, for example, during the holidays or while traveling. There is sensory input we’re receiving that is either unfamiliar or in a context we’re not used to. All of these differences can require a bit more energy from our brain to process this stimuli.
And it’s important to note: this is how it is for all brains.
What about sensory processing differences?
Remember that everything we do, think, recall, feel in our day takes up brain space and energy. Our brain does a lot of work for us, so the more things that can be done automatically, the more brain space we can use for other things, like emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, frustration tolerance.
So when we look at a brain with sensory processing differences, something different can happen in that sequence, and sensory processing can take up far more energy than for most folks as the brain gets overwhelmed and stressed, leaving less brain space for, say, emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, frustration tolerance.
This is why we often talk about how even if children have developed some of the skills above, they may not always be able to access them.
“But my child is usually pretty flexible about stuff like this. Why are they being so rigid all of a sudden?”
“My child is typically pretty good about sharing with their siblings, but they’re being so greedy all of a sudden. What’s going on?”
Especially for our children with sensory processing differences, consider what sensory input they’ve been receiving.
A multi-sensory approach
How can we use this information to help prepare our kids for new environments, difficult situations, unfamiliar settings?
I always recommend that families take a multi-sensory approach to helping our kids prepare for dentist visits, birthday parties, trips to Disneyland.
I always recommend showing your child videos, photos of people and places, and things they’ll see. Maybe you describe the sequence of events, how long you’ll be there. You fill in all the gaps so that the brain can start to create some expectation and process sensory information ahead of time. Surely when you arrive to the birthday party there will be a lot of sounds and sights and smells that you couldn’t predict or prepare your child for, but the brain can spend more time processing that new information instead of the bounce castle because you already showed your child that video or shared with them that homemade social story.
You can also think of it this way: Giving yourself that map of the construction detour, visualizing going through that alternate route to school may give your brain that extra space and energy it needs to continue your conversation with your friend in the car.
When basic needs are unmet
Finally, an important consideration is when our children are sick, haven’t been sleeping well, are having digestive issues, etc., the brain will prioritize its resources for staying healthy and taking care of our most primal needs, which is absolutely what it should do. That’s what we need our brain for during those times–to help us stay alive and stay safe.
But that means, the more energy our brain spends in our survival mode, the less energy it has to recruit for other brain functions that link to behavior like impulse control, short term memory, language, communication, social interaction, control of our body and actions, etc.
Laura Petix 0:00 is, so the more things that can be done automatically running in the background, the more brain space we can use for other more important things like having conversations and doing things at work and spending time with our loved ones and reading a book. Welcome to the sensory wise solutions podcast for parents, where parents can get real actionable strategies to support kids with sensory processing disorder. I’m Laura, OT and mom to Lilyana, a sensory sensitive kid who inherited my anxiety and my love for all things Disney. Consider me your new ot mom, bestie. I know my stuff. But I also know what it’s really like in the trenches of parenting a child with sensory processing disorder. Speaker 1 0:45 Okay, mom, enough about me. Let’s try the podcast. Laura Petix 0:52 Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. If you’re listening to this on the day, or at least the week that it is out, I wanted to let you know that my detecting dysregulation free training is now available for you to watch for free. You can access that at the OT butterflied.com/training. If you are a parent, or a teacher or a therapist, and you’ve ever thought to yourself, I have no idea why but my child keeps doing XYZ behavior. I don’t get it, why are they reacting like this. Or if you feel like your child is walking on eggshells or sorry, you are walking on eggshells around your child with unpredictable behavior. Maybe even just nearly constant dysregulation this free training is a great place to start. In the one hour free training, I’m going to teach you about how the nervous system works in kids and more specifically your child and I also give you access to my free nervous system Video for kids, for you to watch with your child so they can learn about how their nervous system works as well, which is extremely important if you ever want to help your child with self regulation skills. So again, the training is available to watch today, just click on the link below the episode or head to the OT butterfly.com/training. The video expires on January 19 at midnight Pacific Standard Time, so be sure to watch it before then. And also join us in the free training community that you get access to us for one week, starting on January 12, you’ll get all the information on how to join us in that free community when you register for the training. And just one quick heads up that while the training is free and very valuable in and of itself, the real work the exciting transformational Insights is going to be covered in the sensory detectives boot camp, which is now open for the next cohort. And you can find out more about that in the link below, as well. All right, let’s get straight into it, we need some clarity on sensory processing. So usually you hear those two words followed by disorder or differences, we usually hear sensory processing disorder or sensory processing differences. But do you know or really understand the process the actual sequence of events of sensory processing and how it works. If not, this episode is for you, I’m going to break it down for you. The very first thing that you should know or review is that there are eight kinds of sensory input that is processed by the nervous system. So you’ve got your starting five, your VIPs. While they’re all VIPs, I would argue but the five that you probably learned as far back as kindergarten is the visual sense, the auditory sense, the olfactory sense, which is really just a fancy word for smell, the gustatory sense, which is a fancy word for taste, and tactile, which is your touch sensation. But there are three more senses that our nervous system processes. And one of those is the vestibular sense, which is in charge of sensing how our bodies move through space. So if we’re swinging if we are hanging upside down from the monkey bars, if we’re spinning, then there’s also the proprioception sense, which is in charge of sensing how our limbs and muscles are positioned in space, and it helps with coordination. And then there’s the interoception sense and this is in charge of telling us how our internal sensations are doing and what our body might need. So these are our hunger pains, if we have any aches if we’re thirsty, if we’re tired. When we have knots in our tummy when we’re anxious about something, all of those are interoception sensations. Okay, so here’s the process of sensory processing. I broke it down into about five steps. This is very simplified. But this is the need to know this is all you need to know in terms of understanding what it takes for your brain to take in information and create a response in your body. So the first step is one of the sensory receptors, any of those eight senses that we previously mentioned, registers and notices sensory information from the environment, including your internal environment, if we’re talking about interoception, and it takes in that information through the receptors in the body. So first notices it takes it in, I’ve got some information here. The second step is that sensory input information travels up the nerves to your brain for your brain to start processing. This is like the middle step, the organizational step, the triage step, steps three and four, the brain processes this information, and it does this in a variety of ways. It identifies and localizes the input, what is this input? What am I feeling? Where is it coming from? And the brain decides how to specifically categorize and label this information, which helps with its decision of what to do? So it asks, Is this sensory input information important? Is it meaningful to me? Is it dangerous? Is it pleasurable? Is it noxious? Is it painful? Is it threatening? What do I have stored in my short term memory or long term memory, hint, hint, trauma, about this sensory event. So with all of that information, then the last step, the brain sends out a signal to the body to either take some overt action, or simply just ignore it remain calm, stay regulated, and really no action is required. If it needs to take action and do something, it will activate the sympathetic nervous system response, which is your fight or flight. But again, it doesn’t always mean that you go into fight or flight mode, it just gets your body into action. So here’s a very specific example that I want you to think about as an adult. So let’s say you are on a park bench with your friend and you’re sitting and having a conversation, sipping some coffee, and you hear a kid cry while you’re talking to your friend, so you both kind of stop. So here’s what happens inside of your brain and body, your auditory receptors inside of your ears take in that sound of crying, it notices it, it recognizes it, it registers it of the sound, it sends that information up to the auditory processing center of the brain. And the brain is able to put a label label on this and say, That is the sound of a child crying. And it also helps you localize it to somewhere behind you, you know what’s in that direction. So it then also labels the signal as this is an important thing to pay attention to. And it might jumpstart your sympathetic nervous system to start to get your body into action. This might increase your heart rate a little bit, dilate your pupils. So you can start to see any potential threats, and also an increased breath rate. And with that, it prompts your body sends a signal out to your body that allows you to sit up, turn around and focus your vision to where the sound was coming from and find your child to check if they’re safe. Then depending on what you see what is happening, who’s crying, if someone’s hurt, if there’s blood, anything, depending on what you see, that process starts again, what are you seeing it sends that message up to your brain, your brain tells you if this is safe, it’s if it’s important if you need to do anything about it. And then you go about your day, you might pick up your child, if it’s them, that’s crying, maybe it wasn’t your child who’s crying. And so you can go back to the conversation with your friend. But that whole process takes what one second two seconds maximum. But this is what goes on all day long in our brain as we move through our environment, as we explore as we function in our days. Sensory Processing is a constant, constant, automatic function of our nervous system. And this is the same kind of process that happens over and over as a loop of feedback of sensory input and sending responses out to the body when you’re doing simple motor tasks or anything in your day. Let’s take riding a bike, for example, when you’re riding a bike, you’re proprioception sense, your vestibular, your tactile, your visual receptors, maybe even your auditory receptors are all taking in information at the same time. Time, as you are pedaling, and moving forward and biking down the street, all of those senses at once give information to the brain. And your brain processes that information, and is sending out signals and telling you how hard to pedal how to turn the bike, how to adjust your body, it constantly receives more feedback from the environment, maybe the resistance from the bike pedals as you go uphill, and it tells your legs to put more effort. So you can go uphill, maybe you start to lose your balance and your vestibular system picks up on that, or you hit a bump in the road than your brain is processing all this new information and then react by having you put your foot down so that you can catch yourself from falling or pushing the brakes really, really fast. So you don’t bump into another person who’s walking in front of you. All of these things again, happen as a reaction automatically, in just a matter of milliseconds. And you’re not actively thinking about it, it is an automatic process. That’s a really, really important thing for you to understand that this is automatic, and it happens all day long, in order to keep our body functional and alive and safe. So here’s the thing to remember about brains, they are Association machines, they like to make associations, because that makes our brain more efficient. So our brains become more efficient with familiar routines. So when we are around sensory input, in the environment that’s familiar to us, this whole process of sensory processing information is extremely efficient and takes little energy from our brain. But when we’re around sensory information that’s either unfamiliar, or just maybe not at a time that we expect. Or if it’s out of order, or out of context, this whole process takes more energy, it’s a little slower, it takes the brain a little bit more time to figure out how to label it and what to do. It’s sort of like, if you imagine you have an automatic route that you use to take to work, you have three right turns, then a stoplight, then you head into the parking lot. And maybe you have the same parking spot or just a familiar area that you tend to park, you could do this drive blindfolded if it were safe, but obviously wouldn’t. But you have a lot of muscle memory there you can be having a conversation with your mom, or rehearsing a speech that you have to make, you don’t have to think about the the directions and the way that you’re navigating to work. It is such a familiar route that you’ve done over and over again, it’s automatic at this point. But maybe one day, there’s construction on the road, and one of those three, right turns is now blocked. And you have to make a few left turns to get to the right place or take a detour. Suddenly, your brain, the resources that your brain is using are a little less available to practice that speech that you have. Or maybe you get lost in conversation with your mom. And you’re like what, what did you say sorry, I, I’m a little disoriented, I don’t know where I am. And so you can’t really focus on that conversation anymore, because now your brain is thrown off. And the automatic process is no longer automatic. And it needs to direct some resources to thinking about alternate routes, all based on the sensory information that it had received some visual information, maybe you even got some interoception information in your body, maybe you got that sinking feeling in your gut. When you said, Oh, man, there’s construction. And now I’m going to be late to work. And so that sends a signal up to your brain, all of these things happening at once. But this is exactly why when we are out of our routine, and I’m talking about anybody but kids, adults, anyone. But when we’re out of our routine, like during the holidays, our brain spends significantly more time and energy processing all of that new information. Or maybe it’s not new sensory information, but it’s just in a different context. So maybe it’s the smell of the Christmas tree or the Christmas lights. Or maybe it’s just a little bit of a different sleeping environment because our cousins are sleeping over. So we need to share our room and that throws us off just a little. But even if these changes in routine and the environment are so fun and things that we and our kids enjoy and love, it still requires more energy from our brain to now process and take in all this new sensory information from the environment in our day to day lives as we’re going through the holidays. And that’s how it works in all brains, neurotypical and neurodivergent. But when you’re layering on top of that a brain with sensory processing differences, it can complicate things even more. And that’s when you see a lot of dysregulated behaviors as the brain and the nervous system gets overwhelmed and stressed and perceives threat and then it sends a response out to the body that may not match what is going on in the environment. So everything that we do, all day long, everything we do, think, remember feel in our day, takes up brain space and energy. When our brain is starting to process all of those things, our brain does a lot of work for us. So the more things that can be done automatically running in the background, the more brain space we can use for other more important things like having conversations and doing things at work and spending time with our loved ones and reading a book. This is why some of the most common suggestions to help prepare your child for a visit to the doctor or visits to the dentist or visit to Disneyland or a theme park or birthday party. We often talk about role playing with your child and helping them know what to expect things that they can say things that they can do. But we also recommend showing videos of the space showing pictures of the people that they’re going to see showing the map of where they’re going, try to fill in all of those sensory pieces of information that they’re going to see on that day, and help their body start to create somewhat of a pathway for that sensory information. Even if they’re just practicing it or seeing it at home out of context, a little bit can help so that when they get there on that day, the process of sense of of processing that sensory information that they see when they first get to the carnival, or when they open the door to the birthday party. They’re going to process a lot of new sensory things, faces loud sounds, things that you can’t predict. But a lot of that work may have already been prepped in their brain and nervous system by you showing them the pictures of the relatives that are going to be there. Or the pictures of what the bounce house might look like. That is a little bit more background on why that preparation process can help for a lot of neurodivergent a lot of anxious kids, we are helping the brain know what to expect. So that it can spend less resources on processing that and more resources on staying regulated. But when our most basic self care tasks are not met, like if we’re sick, or not eating properly, or having digestive issues, or not sleeping well or if we just have to go to the bathroom. And we’ve been ignoring that because we really want to finish this email and now we’re doing the potty dance. And something is off, the brain is going to prioritize sending resources that allow us to pay attention to those needs. So that we can stay healthy and can take care of our most primal needs, which is great. It’s what we need our brain to do, and it helps us stay alive and safe. But that means the more energy that our brain spends in our survival mode, the less energy it has to recruit for other brain functions that link to behavior, impulse control, focus, attention, planning, logic, short term memory, language communication, social interaction, controlling our bodies. Does that make sense? I hope that this information is starting to put things into place for you. Maybe it gives you insights on some behaviors that you’ve had recently, maybe you’ve lost your patience a little bit more over the holiday season, I know you’re not alone in that I definitely have. Maybe your kids have been really wired or hyperactive or not able to focus not able to follow through. Whenever you see those behaviors or challenges. Remember, it’s communicating a need that the body has not been able to meet. Sometimes those are social emotional needs, like needing more connection from mom or dad. But sometimes it needs help processing sensory information. Sometimes there’s actions that you can take to help regulate your child. Sometimes it’s just being aware that hey, this week has been a little chaotic. There’s been a little bit more sensory input for my sensory sensitive child. Or maybe there’s not been enough sensory input for my child who has a higher need for sensory input. Whatever the case may be, just know that the brain needs to automatically process sensory information and when there are things new in the environment different or changing. The first thing that you’re going to notice is the behavior in your in your child it’s going to look a little different because the brain prioritizes safety and comfort. With that I’m going to sign off from this episode. I’ll be back next week. But here’s your reminder if you like that information and you want to keep learning in this way with very digestible, easy to understand knowledge about the sensory systems and the nervous system. Definitely register for the free training at the OT butterfly.com/training. Again, that is active until January 19. And keep an eye out for joining us in the sensor detectives boot camp. The first call starts on January 21. And that’s when we start applying all this information to actionable strategies for finding the best regulation supports for you and your child at home. All right, I’ll see you next week. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider rating it and leaving a review which helps other parents find me as well. Want to learn more from me. I share tons more over on Instagram at the OT butterfly. See you next time. Transcribed by https://otter.ai