Ask the OT: What are Sensory Processing Differences?

Sensory processing differences is a topic that comes up now and then in the Inner West Mums group, often as a family grapples to support their child who seems highly resistant to any number of sensory experiences. An individual with sensory processing differences may find many aspects of their daily life, such as bathing, grooming, dressing, eating and so on, very challenging. And while certain sensory experiences might cause a person great distress, others might bring them great delight. Sensory processing issues can occur as part of a bigger developmental picture, alongside anxiety, autism, ADHD, Down syndrome and other diagnoses. We chatted with Sydney-based paediatric occupational therapist Julia Hay, of Julia’s Place, who works with children with complex needs to find out more about this topic.
Julia explains: ‘We receive a great deal of information from our senses. We use this information in many ways – to help us understand our body, understand the environment, and successfully interact in the world. In addition to the five senses that tell us about the outside world, we also have internal sensations relating to our body and movement sense.
‘Sensory processing (sometimes also called sensory integration) is the process of putting this information together, so that we then know how to act. Some children have difficulties at the very first stage of sensory integration; they’ll struggle with working out what sensations to respond to, filtering out information that they don’t need and deciding how much sensation is needed to respond.’
The three typical areas of difficulty seen in children, Julia says, are sensory sensitivity, sensory seeking and passiveness. ‘Sensory-defensive children have specific sensations that they find distressing or unpleasant, even though they are not threatening to those around them.’ She gives the examples of distress at certain noises, dislike of certain clothes or fabrics, dislike of messy play, and avoidance of playground equipment or rough and tumble. ‘By contrast, certain children seek out opportunities to get extra sensory stimulation – their brain needs more input, as it does not process it efficiently. These children are trying to “feed” their system what it needs to function at its best; however, they do not always choose the best way of doing this.’ Sensory seeking, she says, includes fidgeting, rocking, spinning, smelling objects excessively, touching people or things continually, and mouthing objects. Then there are those children who do not get the sensory stimulation they need and do not go about seeking it for themselves. ‘These children are often described as “zoned out” and may appear lethargic.’
In supporting children with sensory processing differences, Julia says, we need to first understand their sensory systems. ‘Each child is unique and has their own set of sensory needs and preferences. It can take quite some detective work and careful experimenting to fully grasp these needs and preferences.’ Some children may be sensitive to sound, for example, but seek touch and movement. ‘Children may also fluctuate from day to day – sometimes they are sensitive and sometimes they are not! It’s only when we understand a child’s unique needs and preferences that we can begin to support them effectively.’
It’s worth noting that while everyone has their own sensory preferences, ‘if a child’s sensory processing is having an impact on their quality of life or that of the family, intervention may be a good idea’. According to Julia, sensory processing differences typically occur as part of a ‘bigger picture’ or as a sign of that other issues may be present. ‘Sensory issues are widely recognised as occurring alongside anxiety, ADHD, Down syndrome, autism and many other diagnoses,’ she says. ‘It is for this reason that parents of children with sensory processing issues are wise to book an appointment with a developmental paediatrician and an assessment with an occupational therapist.’
A paediatric occupational therapist can assist with sensory integration. Together with the family, the therapist can develop a ‘sensory diet’ – a tailored plan to provide a child with regular calming sensory input through playful, non-confrontational means. A sensory diet can be incorporated into a family’s everyday life, by purposefully offering certain activities as well as resources, such as trampolines, crash mats or weighted cushions or blankets, which help to stimulate the senses in appropriate ways.
If you have concerns about your child’s sensory processing, your first port of call should be your GP, who may want to refer you to a paediatrician (ideally, a specialist developmental one) to look over your child’s development. They may also draw up a Chronic Disease Management plan to assist with access to professional services, such as occupational therapy and/or speech pathology, if needed.
Following is a list of resources if you would like to learn more about sensory processing differences. You may notice several of these sites are autism-focused. Do keep in mind that although not every child with sensory processing difficulties is on the autism spectrum, it is very common for autistic people to have sensory issues. As a result, autism-focused websites can be an excellent place to glean helpful tips on supporting kids with sensory issues, even if they aren’t autistic.
Understood – Sensory differences
The National Autistic Society – Sensory differences
The National Autistic Society – Real stories: Meg Autistic teenager Meg explains what sensory sensitivity means to her.
Autism Discussion Page Psychologist and author Bill Nason’s Facebook page has a wealth of resources on sensory processing, including this great album on the sensory diet.
You might also like:
‘Embrace Autism as a Vital Difference’: A Recap of our Embracing Autism Discussion
Something to Embrace: Autism Acceptance with Princess Aspien
An Extraordinary Child: Our Family’s Autism Journey
The Boy Who Loved School: An ADHD Story

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