By Gina Gibson, Fraser Occupational Therapist and Sensory Inclusion Specialist • August 13, 2020
You’ve probably heard of sensory processing, but may not be sure what it means. Most people are familiar with the five traditional senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. But many don’t know there are three additional senses: proprioception, vestibular and interoception. The way people respond to the senses varies greatly, and when misinterpreted by the brain, it can lead to sensory processing difficulties or dysfunction.
There are more than five senses
Proprioception is your sense of body awareness, which helps you realize where
you are in relation to the things around you. Vestibular is your body’s sense of movement in response to gravity. Interoception is your internal sense of feeling hungry, tired, nervous or having your heart rate and breathing change.
When your senses are working well, stimuli from the world around you sends a signal to your brain. Then your brain decides to respond or ignore the input. If someone says your name, you can choose to look at that person to see why they need your attention. If you’re at a restaurant with background noise, you can filter out the unnecessary sounds so that you can pay attention to your conversation.
Sensory processing differences cause a “traffic jam”
People with sensory processing differences or dysfunction experience a sensory processing “traffic jam.” A disconnect occurs when information travels to the sensory processing center of their brains, which causes an overreaction or underreaction to the stimulus.
Some people have an overreaction and others an underreaction
An overreaction means a person is hypersensitive to sensory input, so the experience feels larger or more intense than it does for other people. For someone who’s hypersensitive, it feels like walking out of a dark movie theater into the intense glare of the sun, but without the ability to get used to the glare.
People that underreact to stimuli are hyposensitive. They feel the sensory input as smaller, less intense or might not notice it at all. Hyposensitive individuals may need a lot of sensory input before their system registers and responds. You may need to say their name louder, even though their hearing is fine. They may also hold their hand on a hot stove longer, before they register the heat and pull their hand away.
“We all have sensory input that we may or may not like, but when it starts to impact our daily lives, it becomes sensory dysfunction. Some common examples of sensory dysfunction are sensitivity to touch, loud sounds or bright lights. All of these things can make being out in the world much more difficult,” says Fraser Occupational Therapists and Sensory Inclusion Specialist Gina Gibson.
Sensory processing differences also vary. People can be hypersensitive, hyposensitive or have a combination of these responses. Sensitivities can even change from day-to-day.
Sensory tools can help
Sensory tools can help individuals with sensory processing differences. These include items like noise-reducing headphones, fidgets, chewy necklaces or weighted items like blankets. These tools are often helpful in public or when a problem occurs and provide a quick solution to help people manage their reactions to stimuli. However, these tools are a short-term solution. The tools can become less effective, as the novelty wears off.
Occupational therapy provides long-term solutions
If your loved one struggles with certain types of sensory input, you may want to consider working with an occupational therapist. An occupational therapist can determine your loved ones’ sensory needs and develop strategies for him or her. One strategy is a sensory diet that includes sensory activities an individual completes throughout the day. This teaches a person’s body how to respond to difficult experiences and provides a long-term solution to challenges.