Sensory processing refers to the way the brain receives sensory input from the receptors in the brain. The brain organizes and responds to the input by behaving in a consistent and meaningful way through behavioral and motor responses. Collecting information this way is crucial because it allows us to participate in regular activities. By combining all the information received from our senses, we can successfully navigate and interact with the world around us.
Some people experience sensory stimuli differently, including being easily overwhelmed, avoiding textures or tastes or becoming agitated in noisy environments. These individuals process the sensations around them and react in ways that are outside of the norm. When there is a problem with sensory processing, which is called a sensory processing disorder (SPD), then the help of an occupational therapist (OT) is needed. OTs are trained professionals who can assess the differences in sensory processing someone is experiencing and create a treatment plan that includes ways to introduce sensations in a safe and comfortable environment.
Occupational therapists apply a holistic approach to the treatment of individuals with SPD by examining the physical, emotional and social aspects of their life. They will include those who are close to the client and have them practice the treatment at home so the therapy can have a lasting impact. The most common therapy is sensory integration therapy, which improves sensory processing and helps those with sensory sensitivity to participate in daily activities more comfortably.
There are four types of sensory processing difficulties, including low registration, sensation seeking, sensory sensitive and sensation avoiding.
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Children and adults with low registration of sensory input can appear as if they are uninterested in the world around them. They can appear withdrawn or lethargic, and it can sometimes be misconstrued as self-absorption, laziness or being antisocial. These individuals do not become too bothered by change and can cope with a changing environment quite easily. Another indication of low registration is difficulty noticing changes in the environment. They may not notice changes in lighting or temperature and may even fail to notice someone is speaking.
OTs will use general strategies to help with low registration sensory input such as activities involving movement, visual and auditory stimuli, touch, taste and smell. Deep pressure activities involve providing pressure throughout the body with weighted items or physical contact and can help the individual feel more grounded and aware of their body. Something called a sensory diet is also used in treatment and provides the individual with sensory activities throughout the day to help regulate their nervous system. Some examples of the sensory diet involve using a fidget toy, chewing on a chewy tube or using a vibrating toothbrush.
An individual classified as sensation seeking does not process all available sensory stimuli, but rather than acting passively, they seek to gain sensory input. This means that they may engage in activities such as acting hyper, touching people and objects or engaging in unsafe activities such as climbing or jumping from high places. These individuals have a higher threshold for excitement and engage in activities that provide strong sensory experiences. They are also known as thrill-seekers and commonly engage in extreme activities.
Occupational therapists will treat an individual who is sensation seeking by exposing them to sensory stimuli in a repetitive way that is structured gradually. This allows the brain to adapt and process sensations in a more organized and efficient manner. This type of therapy starts gradually and then progresses over time to incorporate more complex stimuli.
This type of therapy is one of the areas of study included in the curriculum for a doctorate in occupational therapy programs with an accredited online school such as American International College. With this online program, a working OT can continue to assist clients while studying for a doctorate in occupational therapy.
People with sensory sensitivity are overly sensitive to stimuli in their environment. These individuals have heightened reactions to different sensations, and it can be debilitating and affect how they deal with the world and other people. Examples include those with sensitivity to sounds which may become agitated in noisy places or experience physical pain in response to loud noises. Those who are sensitive to light may experience discomfort when in sunshine or become overwhelmed in visually complex environments.
Occupational therapists help individuals with sensory sensitivity by engaging them in treatment using a sensory gym. Some of the equipment in these gyms include weighted vests, swings, ball pits and other stimuli. Squeeze machines can provide calming pressure and expose individuals to sensory stimuli in a comfortable, gentle way so they are not overwhelmed.
People with hypersensitivity to stimuli will avoid sensations because they experience them more intensely than others. These sensations are overwhelming, and they actively avoid them. Those afflicted with this disorder might avoid hugs, be scared by sounds, hear noises in the background where others cannot or refuse to wear certain types of clothing because it is uncomfortable. These individuals will go to great lengths to avoid certain stimuli. An example of sensation avoidance is sensitivity to bright lights where the individual may never go outside during the day or wear sunglasses indoors.
OTs can provide opportunities for touch pressure therapy and heavy work therapy. Activities such as pulling a wagon, carrying a weighted box or a weighted lap pad can help calm those with sensation avoidance. OTs will also work with the client on ways to avoid visual and auditory overstimulation to reduce the feelings of being overwhelmed.
Occupational therapists are skilled professionals who are trained in techniques to help both children and adults suffering from sensory processing disorders. By using a treatment called sensory integration therapy to help their clients process and organize sensations in a safe and comfortable environment, they provide relief to those who need it the most.