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The Sensory Spectrum and Sensory Processing Disorders

What’s inside this article: An introduction to the sensory spectrum and sensory processing disorders. Links to detailed articles for each of the 8 sensory systems are at the bottom of this article.

Sensory processing is a normal process where the brain and nervous system receive information from all of the senses then interprets this information to create appropriate motor and behavioral responses.

Typical sensory processing lets us respond to the input we receive both automatically and appropriately. For most of us, this happens seamlessly. We don’t even think about it.

Everyone processes sensory input differently, The Sensory Spectrum is used to describe the way our bodies uniquely receive and process sensory input.

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

We all have challenges with sensory processing occasionally and that can be normal. However, as many as 1 in 6 children deal with sensory processing dysfunction that affects their daily life.

Plus, about 98% of children with autism also deal with a sensory processing disorder. 

This occurs when sensory signals are not organized and processed into appropriate behavioral responses.

According to personal accounts from some autistic individuals, certain sensory input can be at best disturbing, and at worst, physically painful.

This can apply to any or all of the sensory systems. It’s a personal experience that affects people differently.

We describe sensory processing disorder as a spectrum because it has a wide range of symptoms and severity. Our sensory systems are so complicated that there are thousands of ways atypical sensory processing affects children with SPD.

The Sensory Spectrum

The term “the sensory spectrum” describes the array of sensory differences that exist from person to person. How we experience and interpret various stimuli is an individualized experience.

Additionally, we all have sensory preferences. These are things we enjoy and avoid. This is called a sensory bias. It’s the reason why we like different foods, music, activities, etc.

A sensory bias is only a problem when it severely restricts or limits productivity. Or, when it chronically interferes with enjoyment in life.

Overview of different types of sensory processing disorders and the 8 sensory systems. This is an introductory post to a 9 part series on the sensory systems.

Where do you fit?

Most people would place themselves somewhere within the normal range on the sensory spectrum. But no one is the same, even people who are neurotypical can be more or less sensitive to sensory input than others. 

People who are autistic usually fall somewhere closer to the top or bottom of the curves. Highly sensitive people are hypersensitive and people that are less responsive to sensory input are hyposensitive.

Hyposensitive kids often exhibit a lot of sensory seeking behaviors and those who are hypersensitive tend to show sensory avoidance. This is covered in more detail throughout this series.

Moreover, a person’s particular placement on the sensory spectrum could vary, depending on external and internal factors.

For example, I personally fall within the normal range. But, being up all night and waking with a headache, increases my sensitivity to sensory input, especially auditory input.

Healthy Development of Sensory Processing

Healthy sensory development begins in infancy. Learning to lift the head, and gain postural control and movement control – learning to sit, stand, roll – are the very first sensory processing skills to develop as a baby.

Babies will put objects in their mouths, exploring and learning by using the oral motor system.

They develop the ability to grasp objects, begin responding to noises, and following their parents’ movement with their eyes.

As children progress into toddlerhood they begin to learn more complex skills, such as drawing with a crayon, walking, throwing a ball, and self-care skills like dressing.

These are all the foundations of developing efficient sensory processing and integration. 

When sensory processing is well developed, it positively influences cognitive development, communication, self-regulation, motor skills, and interactions with the environment.

Sensory Integration Problems

When sensory processing and integration do not develop as expected, children begin to experience sensory processing disorders.

These challenges are often misinterpreted as “bad behavior” because children may respond by withdrawing, or with aggression, hyperactivity, attempting to compensate for their sensory needs.

Sensory integration problems or sensory processing disorders can include:

  • Sensory Modulation – The brain either over-responds or under-responds to information
  • Discrimination and Perception – the brain struggles to interpret sensory information or giving meaning to the information
  • Vestibular Bilateral Functional Problems – Problems related specifically to the vestibular system and coordinating the two sides of the body
  • Praxis Problems – Praxis means how the body plans and executes motor movements that it has not done before

The 8 Senses

The Sensory Spectrum

We have 8 sensory systems in our bodies. These are:

  1. Visual (sight)
  2. Auditory (hearing)
  3. Olfactory (smell)
  4. Gustatory (taste)
  5. Tactile (touch)
  6. Vestibular (balance and movement)
  7. Proprioceptive (muscles and joints)
  8. Interoception ( Internal body sensations)

This table shows a brief description of each of the sensory systems (excluding interoception).

Individual units in this blog series will address each system in detail.

The Sensory Spectrum - Description of the sensory systems

Interventions for Sensory Processing Disorder

There are many intervention strategies for children struggling with sensory processing. Which intervention strategies work best will depend on your child’s unique sensory needs.

The goal of interventions is to improve sensory processing for the sensory systems that are showing dysfunction. These interventions vary depending on the person.

They may include therapists working directly with your child. However, home and school-based sensory diet plans can greatly benefit children with sensory processing disorders as well.

In other words, parents and school staff can implement these activities.

A sensory diet includes specific, scheduled sensory activities and structured leisure time to benefit the individual’s sensory needs.

An occupational therapist creates a sensory diet individualized for your child. However parents can find many ideas online and with an understanding of the sensory systems, can find activities that help at home.

Ready to Learn How Each Sensory System Works?

This post is part of a 10 part series on the sensory processing and the systems. Each part will contain a table of contents to help you easily navigate through the entire series.

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction – The Sensory Spectrum
  2. The Tactile System
  3. The Auditory System
  4. The Visual System
  5. Proprioception
  6. Vestibular System
  7. Interoception
  8. The Olfactory System
  9. The Oral-Motor System
  10. Bilateral Coordination

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