Understanding sensory processing differences

Sensory processing is the way the nervous system receives messages from our senses and turns them into motor (movement) and behavioural responses.  

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is when these messages are either not detected, or do not get organised into appropriate responses. 

This article explains more about sensory processing and sensory processing difficulties. 

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What is sensory processing? 

Sensory processing is when our brains take in information through our senses, and organise it so that we are able to respond appropriately to particular situations and demands in our environment.  

For most people, sensory processing develops in the course of ordinary childhood activities. When a person has good sensory processing skills they are able to take in information quickly and easily.  For some people however, sensory processing does not develop as well as it should, and can affect activities of daily living, academic achievement, behaviour or social participation.  

Children can display different types of sensory difficulties across their senses. Some children will display hyper (over) sensitivity, some hypo (under) sensitivity, and some children will display a mixture of hyper and hypo sensitivities. 

The eight senses 

Many of us are aware of five senses of the body:  

  • touch 

  • taste 

  • smell 

  • hearing 

  • sight 

We also have three other senses: 

  • Vestibular – This tells us where our head is in space and how it is moving. This sense helps us to balance. 

  • Proprioception – the awareness of the position and movement of the body 

  • Interoception – what our brains tells us is going on inside our bodies e.g. when we feel hunger, pain, tiredness, hot or cold, and when we need to go to the toilet. 

Signs of sensory processing difficulties 

If your child has difficulties processing sensory information then they may show some of the following signs: 

  • fear of heights 

  • dislike of touch experiences e.g. nail cutting, messy play, hair cutting 

  • dislike of loud and sudden sounds 

  • avoidance of playground equipment, such as swings and slides 

  • avoidance of certain foods and food textures, colours, temperature 

  • appear to have no fear or do not feel pain 

  • seek movement or touch opportunities (fidget, rock, run about, lean on peers) 

  • mouths or chews things 

  • poor attention to the environment or people around them 

  • appear clumsy 

  • have difficulty planning and executing new movements 

  • slouch at their desk 

  • fidget or have difficulty sitting in one position for an extended period of time 

  • difficulties with fine motor coordination and ball skills 

  • poor balance 

How to get help 

Occupational Therapy (OT) from Sirona care and health children community services accepts referrals for children and young people who have physical functional difficulties or needs. The physical functional difficulties may include sensory processing issues such as poor balance or coordination.

Your child may be experiencing physical functional difficulties in the following areas:  

  • self-care skills such as dressing, bathing, toileting, using cutlery  

  • classroom skills such as pencil skills, drawing, writing or using scissors 

  • gross motor skills and activities such as balance, coordination, strength, over flexibility, physical education (PE)activities like swimming or cycling 

Be aware that difficulties in function are made in comparison with other children of the same age or learning level.

If a referral is accepted because the young person has physical or motor coordination needs an assessment is provided, and advice or recommendations will follow.

Where the child or young person’s needs are purely sensory Sirona care and health provide information leaflets and an introductory and comprehensive teaching video

The OT service have a Sensory Advice line which is available 07971035385 on Thursdays – call between 8am and 9.30am to book a morning call back slot up to 12.30

There is also a Referral Advice Line which is available 07917393196 on Wednesday between 9am and 12 for questions / information as to whether to or how to make a referral for Occupational Therapy, Physiotherapy or Speech and Language Therapy.

Additional support 

You may also find some of the following organisations or resources helpful in supporting your child with their difficulties: 

South Glos Parents and Carers run workshops ‘Understanding sensory needs’ is part of a series of workshops written for Parents and Carers in South Glos.   

It aims to help parent/ carers: 

  • gain a better understanding of sensory processing 

  • think about how sensory processing difficulties may affect a child 

  • think about and share strategies and ideas that may help with sensory needs.  

Gympanzees – provide a variety of support for children and young people with SEND, including;

  • A specialist play / exercise equipment lending library

  • A variety of webinars

  • An online hub

  • Inclusive leisure activities.

Jigsaw Thornbury- operate a sensory lending library offering specialist items for families to borrow. Items include toys, Special Educational Needs (SEN) equipment, developmental toys, switch equipment & sensory items. The lending library and café offer you the opportunity to borrow items that may help your child that you are not able to purchase at the moment.  It also has reading materials that provide guidance if you are faced with a particular issue.  

The Lending Library is held monthly on a Saturday morning, 10am-12pm at St. Mary’s Church Hall, Eastbury Rd, Thornbury, Bristol, Avon BS35 1DR. 

Cerebra - offer a free download guide for parents about sensory processing.  

They also offer a sensory toy library for children with special educational needs – the list of toys can be found in their guide

Griffin OT - offers a wealth of resources and information on their website designed by an experienced Occupational Therapist.  

Further information 

The National Autistic Society has information about sensory differences on their website.