Why is Sensory Processing Important?


Our sensory systems live in our nervous system and act as an interpreter between our physical world and our perception of it. They give us a sense of who we are, a sense of the world, and a sense of our place in the world. Efficient sensory processing is the foundation for skill development, higher-level learning, and our sense of self. When there’s a glitch in our ability to process sensory input, it directly impacts our development.

Babies who have faulty sensory processing will not follow a typical trajectory of development. As infants and toddlers they may have delayed fine motor (reaching for and picking up objects) and gross motor (rolling over, sitting up, walking) skills, difficulty self-soothing (intense and prolonged periods of crying), difficulty with separation and transitions, and difficulty in social situations (may seem extremely "shy" or overly aggressive). As they go through childhood, they are at higher risk for everything from low self-esteem to learning problems to anxiety disorders.

Our ability to process and organize the information coming through our eight senses (yes, eight! You'll learn about the three "hidden" senses later) affects the very essence of who we are and how we perceive ourselves. Imagine a baby who is overresponsive to tactile input (the way things feel on the skin) and screams uncontrollably every time he is touched or held in a certain way and/or every time his parent dresses him in certain textures of clothing. Initially, you would have no idea why your baby was crying and you'd feel inadequate as a parent, especially if it is your first child.

You might have dozens of hypotheses - Is he hungry? Oh no, does he have colic? Wait, is it reflux? Maybe he's just tired. Nope, he's cold. He must be cold. OK, not that either...do I just have a really difficult baby? The theories go on and on. During the process of trying to figure out how to soothe your baby, you become frustrated and impatient, you may lose your temper and find yourself desperately pleading with him - "What is wrong?? I don't know how to help you!!!"

After many failed attempts to find the elusive solution to your baby's distress, you finally stumble upon some answers. Ooooh, he's happier when he's swaddled extra tight. I need to use firm pressure when I touch and hold him. He can only wear clothes made out of cotton because lycra, wool, and velvet send him into a horrible meltdown.

For some parents, the answers are slower to come by. They may eventually chalk things up to having a "difficult" baby who has a "difficult" temperament. Other signs, such as delayed fine and gross motor skills might be brushed off. This is especially counter-productive when their family, friends, and even their pediatrician say, "Don't worry, every child develops at a different pace, he'll catch up." Over time, this baby might start to internalize a sense that he is difficult and this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is just one hypothetical example of how sensory processing can affect a child and his perception of himself. There are hundreds of examples of how faulty sensory processing manifests and why efficient sensory processing is necessary for a child's optimal development.

Our job as parents, family members, friends, and professionals is to educate ourselves and to try to understand and attune to our children's/loved ones'/patients' needs as best we can and that's exactly what I hope to help you do.