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Sensory Processing Disorder

What is Sensory Integration and why is it important? What are the proprioceptive and vestibular senses?

Sensory Integration is the way in which our nervous system takes in and processes (organises) information from our senses of the world around us. Our senses include smell, taste, touch, vision, hearing, and movement (proprioception, and vestibular sensation). We need this information to be properly received and processed to be able to:

  • complete every day activities,

  • respond appropriately in social relationships,

  • to self-regulate ourselves behaviourally and emotionally

  • to  concentrate in learning situations.


For example, we need to be able to accept (taste, smell, touch, texture) a wide variety of foods to have a healthy diet, and to be able to cope with sound and process it correctly to not be overwhelmed in a busy shopping mall or school classroom.

Our proprioceptive sense is our awareness of the input to our muscles and joints; it is needed for body awareness, coordination of body movements, graded muscle control, and self-regulation. Our vestibular sense is responsible for our balance and our sense of motion. It tells us which direction our body is moving, how fast we are moving, and how our body is oriented in space. Vestibular processing is important for balance, bilateral coordination, visual motor integration, and for maintaining an optimal level of arousal.

Why and How can sensory processing difficulties be a problem?

Inefficiencies in sensory processing result in sensory processing disorder.  For example, the child may be over/under sensitive to sensory stimuli causing them to avoid or meltdown over normal movement/noise/light or conversely to seek out extra stimulation, often inappropriately.  Where sensory processing signals don’t get organised into appropriate responses the child may display some of the following symptoms:

  • Over alert to movement, sound, light or touch

  • Meltdown or become aggressive or become withdrawn when overloaded by sensory stimulation

  • Be very controlling of their day, and distraught over routine changes

  • Seem to under-respond to physical pain

  • Must always touch, bump, jump, wrestle, lick or chew on items.

  • Be extremely picky with the foods they eat, the clothes they will wear, hate having their hair brushed or cut or have difficulty sleeping.

  • Prone to emotional outbursts or out of control behaviour.

  • Have poor organisation and poor ability to maintain concentrate or follow instructions or sit still.

How can Occupational Therapy help?

Occupational Therapy involves creating a sensory ‘diet’ where the child may be:

  • given gradual exposure to various sensory inputs if sensitive/avoidant

  • given plenty of appropriate physical sensory input if seeking of sensory input

  • taught how to understand their needs through aids or tools (such as pressure vests or earmuffs) or sensory exercises to regulate their behaviour and emotions and attention levels.


The aim of creating a sensory diet is to help children be successful in their everyday lives to be able to concentrate at school, cope with everyday activities at home, eat a varied diet, cope with outings and to better enjoy life.

For younger children, the parent is an integral part of implementing this ‘diet’. Parents need to have an understanding of the theory behind sensory integration and how it relates to their child’s behaviour. The OT will help the parents with this process.

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