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Sensory Processing and the Sub-Types

Have you noticed that mainstream retailers have been stocking more and more items that are labeled “sensory” lately? Having this much selection so readily available is definitely a blessing to many! Parents are buying sensory items with the hope that it will help their child regulate better or eat better or learn better or…

The challenge many parents face is that they don’t truly understand what Sensory Processing encapsulates. It’s more than a weighted blanket or a bin of rice.

In this article we are going to provide a more in depth description of Sensory Processing so parents can make better informed decisions as to what will help their child. We start with the basic definition and the subtypes of Sensory Processing Disorders.

Sensory Processing is the term used to describe the process in which the sensory receptors throughout our bodies send information to the brain, the brain processes that information, and it produces an appropriate and adaptive motor and emotional response to that information. This process is a constant loop between our sensory receptors, our brain, and our motor and emotional expression. There can be a problem at any point in this cycle. When this happens, we call that a Sensory Processing Disorder. A Sensory Processing Disorder can affect every aspect of an individual’s life.

There are three Sensory Processing Disorder sub-types:

1. Sensory Modulation Disorder: This is the condition in which the individual is over-responsive, under-responsive, or seeks specific sensory information. This can often look like a lack of attention or hyperactivity. Emotions often run high with this condition.

2. Sensory Based Motor Disorder: This is the condition in which the individual struggles to control their muscles to produce that functional and adaptive motor response to the sensory input that’s coming into the brain. You might hear this referred to as Dyspraxia (Dys=bad/difficult, Praxis=motor planning/coordination) or Apraxia (A=lack of, Praxis=motor planning/coordination). This individual often appears clumsy and off-balance, and often struggles with speech and eating.

3. Sensory Discrimination Disorder: This is the condition in which the brain struggles to identify the subtle differences in the sensory information it’s receiving. This subtype applies individually to each sensory system (vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and interoceptive). For example, if you were to struggle to identify the difference between the words cat and cap, that may represent an auditory discrimination disorder.

While these sound like neat and tidy little descriptions, we must understand that no one’s sensory system operates in a clean vacuum. Often, we will find that a child is experiencing a combination of each sub-type. And their expression of their individual processing capabilities and challenges will likely change from day to day, sometimes hour to hour. This could be due to many factors, including illness, lack of sleep, hunger/poor nutrition, environmental changes (weather, new clothes, new teacher, etc.), and a sense of safety and security.

Hopefully this information is a good start to help you better understand Sensory Processing. We’ll go over the individual sensory systems in a future post.

As always, if you have any questions or need help with your precious child, call us.