Sensory processing refers to our ability to take in information through our senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision and hearing), organise and interpret that information and make a meaningful response. For most people, this process is automatic.
Children who have a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), however, don’t experience such interactions in the same way. SPD affects the way their brains interpret the information that comes in; it also affects how they respond to that information with emotional, motor and other reactions.
Babies and toddlers learn about the new world around them by using their senses. At first they put everything in their mouths, they grab your finger with their little fists, then they start using their eyes to look at all those baby mobiles hanging over the crib. They learn to recognise the sound of their mother and father’s voices and other noises. They start putting meaning to what they are hearing and seeing. The lesser known senses that have to do with balance and body position are also necessary in order to making meaning of the world around. If these are not working properly and are not in synch, they acquire a distorted view of the world around them and also of themselves.
Although a sensory processing disorder is not considered a qualifying characteristic for a diagnosis of autism, most people with autism have stated sensory processing challenges as the number one difficulty for them, regardless of where they are on the spectrum. So, many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty managing their sensory inputs. They may over- or under-react to visual, tactile and aural input – sometimes to the point where they are unable to participate in typical life activities. Information is processed by the brain in an unusual way that causes distress, discomfort and confusion.
For example, some children are over-responsive to sensation and feel as if they’re being constantly loaded with sensory information. They may try to eliminate or minimize this perceived sensory overload by avoiding being touched or being particular about clothing. Some children are under-responsive and may seek out constant stimulation by taking part in extreme activities, playing music loudly, or moving constantly. They sometimes don’t notice pain or objects that are too hot or cold. Still others have trouble distinguishing between different types of sensory stimulation.
Many adults on the spectrum find it difficult to tolerate social situations. Meeting a new person can be overwhelming – a different voice, a different smell and a different visual stimulus – meaning that difficulties with social relationships are not due to just communication, but are about the total sensory processing experience. This could explain why a student can learn effectively or communicate with a familiar teacher or paraprofessional, but not a new one.
Sensory processing – making sense of the world – affects all aspects of an autistic child or adult’s life – relationships, communication, self-awareness, safety and so on. There are many difficulties shared by those experiencing sensory processing challenges, but to varying degrees.
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