What is Sensory Processing and Why is it Important?

Sensory processing (originally called ‘sensory integration dysfunction’ or SID) refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.” (https://www.spdstar.org/basic/about-spd)

Um, ok. Yeah...er, I’m sorry. Say what?

If, like me, you have a child or children with sensory challenges, chances are you’ve had a similar response after learning about SPD. There are good reasons for our confusion- sensory processing challenges present in many different ways depending on the child and his or her unique sensory system.

To make matters even more confusing, it’s poorly understood by both our medical and educational systems. Ask your child’s pediatrician or teacher about sensory processing and you’re not likely to get a straight answer.

So, the good news is, it’s not you!

A relatively new field of study, Sensory Processing Disorder was first described in 1972 by occupational therapist and educational psychologist Jean Ayres. Her theory of sensory integration came from her observations of “the relationship between deficits in interpreting sensation from the body and the environment and difficulties with academic or motor learning.”

According to Ayres:

  1. Our senses (touch, hearing, sight, smell, taste, proprioception, vestibular, interoception give us information about our bodies and our environment.
  2. Our brains have to organize this sensory information so we can effectively learn, move, and behave.
  3. When our brains can’t organize this sensory information properly, we won’t be able to effectively learn, move, or behave which will cause us to experience physical, social, and emotional difficulties.

So, what is sensory processing? The simplified answer is: It’s the way our brains make sense of the things we see, smell, feel, taste, and hear.

And, why is sensory processing important? Because it directly affects the way our bodies move, the way we’re able to learn, and the way we’re able to regulate our emotions (i.e.,whether we’re able to stay calm, focused, and alert).

For example:

Charlie was described as an “easy” baby by his parents. His mom had a great pregnancy (she was one of those enviable moms who “loved being pregnant!”). She had an easy labor, easy delivery, and Charlie was born a healthy 8 pounds.

Throughout his infancy, he met all his milestones, was a great eater, a pretty good sleeper, was easy to soothe and, aside from the typical challenges- occasional fussiness, “terrible two” temper tantrums, minor sleep regressions, a phase of “picky eating”- he was pretty much a breeze and parenting him was enjoyable and fulfilling.

Charlie is an example of a child with good sensory processing.

Now, let’s look at Dylan. Dylan’s parents described his infancy as “the most challenging period” of their lives to date. His mom had a difficult time getting pregnant, then had complications during her pregnancy which landed her on bedrest. She went into labor at 36 weeks and because Dylan was breech, he was born via C-section.

From the get-go, there were issues. He had a weak latch and had trouble gaining weight, he couldn’t seem to sleep for longer than a two hour stretch, he cried continuously and was difficult to soothe, he had “colic” and developed reflux. Severely sleep deprived and struggling to understand how to meet her baby’s needs, Dylan’s mom began experiencing increasing levels of anxiety.

While he didn’t have any significant delays, Dylan’s motor skill development (rolling, sitting, crawling) were slightly behind and his movements slightly “off.” His body seemed “stiff” and he had trouble with things like clapping, crossing midline, and waving. He needed to be held all the time and startled easily at loud noises which led to prolonged periods of crying.

As a toddler he avoided certain textures, was clingy, and acted frightened in environments like playgrounds and birthday parties where there was a lot going on. He was very cautious and hesitant to try new things. Transitions were challenging and he gave new meaning to “the terrible twos,” which actually lasted into the fours and fives.

Dylan has poor sensory processing.

His brain doesn’t quite know what to do with certain kinds of sensory input and, as a result, he is often in a state of fight or flight. It’s like his brain is on high alert at all times and sounds an internal alarm system at the slightest perceived danger.

While his parents love him beyond words and wouldn’t change him for the world, parenting Dylan is extremely challenging and has caused tension in his parents’ once rock solid relationship.

If you have a child or know a child like Dylan, chances are faulty sensory processing is playing a role in his struggles. If, when someone asks you about your child’s infancy, your immediate response is, “it was very difficult,” chances are your child has some sensory challenges.

This doesn’t mean that something is “wrong” with your child or that he is going to be “severely impaired” in any way. It just means he needs a little more support to help his brain learn how to better process sensory input.

Remember when I said that sensory challenges present in many different ways depending on your child’s unique sensory system? Well, Dylan is just one example of how poor sensory processing can manifest. He is sensory over-responsive. There are also children who are sensory under-responsive and there are child who are both! Hence, the confusion (Click Here to read about the different types of SPD).

It’s important to understand that we all have unique sensory profiles. We all have our own sensory-sensitivities. You may be sensitive to noise and steer clear of concerts and big events. You might have certain preferences about textures. You might be sensitive to foods that are spicy or you might carry around your own tabasco sauce because you like your food extra spicy.

Sensory processing impacts everyone...it just affects those with SPD more.

I hope this gives you an understanding of what sensory processing is and why it’s important. Let me know if it helped and please leave any questions or comments below. I’d love to hear from you.


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Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.