Sensory Processing Disorders


Sensory processing is a natural process of brain function that all of us experience continually from before we are born.  We constantly receive sensory information that allows us to understand the world around us and help us to make adaptive responses.  We all want our children to be able to learn, experience, and develop.  We assume that they will be able to listen to us, to attend for a period of time, and to be calm enough or awake enough to participate in learning experiences.  However for kids with sensory processing or sensory integration difficulties this might not always occur as we expected.

Dr. Ayres states, “Sensory integration is the organization of sensation for use. Our senses give us information about the physical conditions of our body and the environment around us.  Sensations flow into the brain like streams flowing into a lake.  Countless bits of sensory information enter our brain at every moment, not only from our eyes and ears, but also from every place in our bodies.  We have a special sense that detects the pull of gravity and the movements of our body in relation to the earth.”   (The vestibular system)  ‘The brain locates, sorts, and orders sensations – somewhat like a traffic policeman directs moving cars.”

Difficulty with sensory processing can occur due to deficits with the input, processing or output, which then interferes with out interpretation of our environment and may cause us to have maladaptive responses.


Infancy: fussiness, colic, difficulty with sucking, poor head control, avoidance of tummy time, delays in rolling, avoidance of creeping, continually seeking movement, avoidance of movement, picky eater, delay in developing a hand preference, excessive emotional reactions to sensory input or lack of reaction to it.

School-age Child: May have handwriting troubles, difficulty organizing their thoughts on paper, difficulty following directions, tolerating transitions, continually seeking movement, over reactions to situations, limited food choices, peer relations, distractibility, attention span, organization of time and space, and poor motor skills for sports.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

We all process incoming sensory input from our senses of touch, movement (vestibular), sight, hearing, taste and smell.  At times we may experience a “traffic jam” of information and have difficulty sorting it all out in order to focus our attention and perform optimally.  Some children may experience more intense sensory input, affecting their development of motor skills, attention, organization, social skills, behavior, academic performance and development of coping strategies.  These children may experience defensiveness or disorganized processing.  Other children may not be receiving enough input through their senses and need to seek out more intense neural input, often becoming risk takers.

For more information:

Sensory Integration: 

Simply put, is the ability to take in information through our senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision and hearing), put it together with prior information, memories, and knowledge stored in the brain, and make a meaningful response.  It is a process that is dependent upon the efficient integration of all the sensory experiences mixed with environmental situations and demands and the child’s own personality and reactions.  In the normally developing child, sensory integration occurs when the child participates in everyday activities.  The child’s love for sensory activities fuels an inner drive and motivation to conquer challenges.  That drive urges the child to participate actively in experiences that promote sensory integration.   Deficits in sensory integration are likely to impact a child’s gross and fine motor skills, self-help skills, eating, and development of higher level skills.


Motor planning (praxis) is the ability to spontaneously sequence and organize movements in a coordinated manner to complete unfamiliar motor tasks as with sports.  Motor planning can be hampered by poor timing or sequencing of movements or by poor ideation (the instinctive “know how” in approaching a novel motor challenge).  Motor planning is necessary for many gross motor tasks (sports or playground skills) as well as for fine motor constructional tasks such as block building or copying designs and letters with a pencil.  Motor planning is dependent on adequate processing of sensory stimulation and often when there are deficits in one or more areas of sensory processing, difficulties with praxis result.

Sensory Modulation and Regulation: 

Sensory modulation refers to the ability of the nervous system to regulate, organize, and prioritize incoming sensory information, inhibiting irrelevant information and helping the child focus on pertinent information.  A well modulated nervous system adapts to changes in the environment, has a level of arousal and attention appropriate for the task, blocks out irrelevant information, attends to relevant stimulation, and responds appropriately and in direct proportion to the input.  Sensory modulation results in appropriate:

  • Registration
  • Arousal
  • Self-regulation
  • Attention
  • Focus
  • Behavior or emotional responses

Sensory Registration:

Sensory registration is the process by which children respond or attend to sensory input in their environments.  The nervous system must first notice the sensory information, once registered the memory compares it to things they have heard or seen, and thus gives new information meaning.  Children who fail to respond or have delayed responses to sensory information have diminished sensory registration.  Diminished sensory registration is often associated with one or two weaker sensory systems, such as the auditory or vestibular system.  Without sensory registration, no other learning can take place.

Sensory Defensiveness:

Characterized by avoidance behaviors to sensory activities or situations, as the brain registers sensations too intensely.  Emotionally charged behaviors, characterized by flight, or fight, are frequently seen as the child misinterprets normal sensory input as life-threatening intrusions requiring the child to either become immobilized by fear, run, or defend himself.  Behaviors may be noted by fleeing the area, being irritated or annoyed, and appearing threatened or aggressive toward others.  They may react to the slightest touch or movement with increased anxiety, hostility, or even defensive behaviors, and may avoid situations or activities that are viewed as threatening.  The child may rely on routine, predictable activities to keep anxieties in control.  Distractibility and emotional hypersensitivity are common as the child goes into defensive mode, pays attention to all stimuli, and is keenly aware of other people’s actions.  A hypersensitive child may also “shut down”, noted by running to a corner, hiding under a desk, becoming passive or lethargic, in that they have reached saturation for sensory input and have shut down to avoid interacting.

 Look-Alike  Symptoms:

There are many look-alike symptoms that often make it difficult to understand the underlying causes. As well as motor delays there are behaviors which may include:

  • Inattention
  • Distractibility
  • obsessive or compulsive behaviors
  • emotionally reactive
  • lethargic
  • oppositional or defiant behaviors
  • difficulty with transitions
  • disorganization
  • and more.