Sensory Processing 101

We receive so much information from our senses; sight, touch, smell, taste, hearing (vestibular & proprioceptive) and our brain/nervous system needs to know how to handle all of this information.  That is where sensory processing comes into play, literally and figuratively.  Not only do we need our brains to understand how to process all the information it's receiving so we know how to function, sensory play also has some major benefits to your child.  This week,  I wanted to share a Sensory Processing 101 to share all the basics; what is it, why is it important, how can we integrate sensory activities into play, , sensory processing disorder, how preemies are impacted, (my daughter was a micropreemie) and what to do if you have concerns.  All week long over on the "gram" I will be sharing some sensory activities I do with Addie; where I find my favorite toys and items, how I integrate this activities into our daily lives, etc.  so make sure to  check that out!  

Sensory Basics- What is it

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Sensory Processing

refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. For example, kids learn what sounds to "filter out" (talking in the background) and which sounds to pay attention to (a loud crash).

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Sensorimotor Skills

Sensorimotor skills involve the process of receiving sensory messages (sensoryinput) and producing a response (motor output). We receive sensory information from our bodies and the environment through our sensory systems (vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, vestibular, and proprioception).

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Sensory Play

Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates your young child's senses: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing. Basically, you enhance learning through hands-on- activities that stimulate the child's senses.

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Our 7 Sensory Senses

Our sensory systems are made up of vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, vestibular, and proprioception. Vestiublar is sense of balance and spatial orientation which helps coordinate movement with balance. Proprioception: referred to as the sixth sense, was developed by the nervous system as a means to keep track of and control the different parts of the body.

Whew, glad we got all that jargon out of the way! 

Why Sensory Play is important for toddlers?

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Sensory play is beyond important and should be incorporated as much as possible.   We also use sensory play to help our daughter refine her thresholds for different sensory information, so she can learn which information is useful and which can be filtered out.  

For example, a child may find it difficult to play with other children when there is too much going on in their environment with conflicting noises or sights.Through sensory play, the child can learn to block out the noise which is not important and focus on the play which is occurring with their peer.  It is unreal to me to see Adeline stay at an activity in our social group when it involves sensory play.  

Another example is a child who is does not want to eat a certain food or a food with a certain texture. The use of sensory play can assist the child with touching, smelling and playing with the texture in an environment with little expectation. As the child develops trust and understanding of this texture it helps build positive pathways in the brain to say it is safe to engage with this food.

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Sensory Processing & Preemies

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My daughter was born at 26 weeks gestation, and had an IVH (intraventricular hemorrhage or brain bleed) at 2 weeks old.  These two things make her have a much higher risk for sensory processing disorder or SPD. There are many factors that could make it a higher risk such as brain injury, ethnicity, sex, and gestational age but what one study found was that 39%  of preemies (born before 32 weeks), had an atypical score in at least one section or quadrant of their sensory profile compared the 6% of babies born after 32 weeks.  The sensory sections most likely to be affected were auditory, tactile and vestibular processing.  If you are a parent of a premature baby, this is important to keep in mind.

Sensory processing disorder

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Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD is when the brain has trouble organizing information from the senses.  Kids with sensory processing issues can be oversensitive to sights, sounds, textures, flavors, smells, etc.  while either children with sensory processing issues are undersensitive to information they receive through the senses.

All kids can be finicky or difficult at times. But children with sensory processing issues can be so emotionally sensitive that doing simple daily tasks is a constant challenge. Certain fabrics or tags in clothing might irritate them. On the other end of the spectrum, they might have a high tolerance to pain and not realize when they’re in a dangerous situation.

A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and many other problems may impact those who do not have effective treatment.

There’s growing awareness of sensory processing issues, but it’s still controversial in medical circles. It doesn’t appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the guide used by doctors and therapists to diagnose learning, behavior and attention disorders.

Jean Ayres, PhD, likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.

What to Do If You Have Concerns?

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If you have concerns, no matter how subtle, talk to your pediatrician and considering seeing an Occupational Therapist (OT) or Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) depending on the issue.  OT's can work with a child on motor planning, fine motor, gross motor (shoe tying, etc.), engage in organized sensory experiences (e.g. jumping, climbing, pushing),  address bilateral coordination, and figuring out sensory strategies to help regulate.  An SLP can help with motor planning, oral motor skills, feeding, and oral aversion. 

Please let me know if you have any questions or even share your favorite sensory play ideas! 

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