Sensory Processing

Sensory Processing

Sensory Processing: When the nervous system is developmentally mature, sensory messages are delivered efficiently to the brain where the brain interprets this information and allows the body to respond appropriately (behavior). A developmentally mature system means that the myelin sheaths surrounding the nerves are healthy and allow information to travel smoothly and intact to the brain for interpretation. Developmentally mature means that at 3 years of age the system has a typical level of maturity which is different than the 23 year old system. Knowing typical development is important so that we do not expect a 3 year old body to interpret sensory information in the same manner a 23 year old system would interpret information.

Sensory messages are gathered through our 5 senses such as taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. (vestibular, proprioceptive and internal receptors are 3 more extremely profound senses that will be discussed in great detail at another time) It is a sensory concern when all structures are intact with no apparent damage to any part of the sensory gathering structures. Sensory messages can be gathered poorly at the level where body meets environment, sent to the brain for interpretation poorly since myelin sheaths are not efficiently developed, or are interpreted poorly by the brain and therefore, behavior will be atypical and will not match the demands of typical sensory experiences.

Behavior in the sensory world is described as our emotional, social and physical responses to sensory information bombarding our systems at all times. This outward behavior gives us insight into how the nervous system is handling sensory information. This is a subconscious response. But this subconscious response can turn into a learned behavior. So we organize the sensory system and brainstem and expect “behaviors” to move towards typical so that the ‘behavior” eventually matches the demands of the sensory stimuli. A behavior can be a flight/fright or fight response. Again, it is a completely subconscious response to seemingly typical stimuli. The body interprets the sensory experience (stimuli) as dangerous and wants to respond to protect. At the Sunshine Center, we treat to organize all aspects of the unorganized sensory system so all incoming information is responded to in a developmentally appropriate manner. This then leads to a peaceful, joyful, challenge seeking system (refined self). Skill development occurs meaningfully on top of an organized sensory processing system.

If the behavior is deliberate, meaning that the child makes a choice to dart, ignore command, and/or use learned behaviors to avoid such as crying or slinking down to the ground, then a strong behavior plan is used to manage and shape up behaviors. This is conscious and the child becomes a partner in the plan. We extinguish what we do not want by ignoring or looking away from mild transgressions (there are unlimited variations imbedded in this process) and we praise and respond to what we want the child to continue to do. We follow the “children repeat what is responded to” approach so the actions by a therapist (and parents) are fluid and always purposeful. It’s a very delicate and artful process that is intuitively different from what we are used to doing. We have a tendency as parents to correct to what is wrong and ignore the on target behavior. A behavior plan approach ignores the negative and responds to the appropriate with praise and attention. The child is seen through a lens of perfect, develops a confident sense of self and will want to gain your attention/praise with good behaviors. The “wrong” behaviors become secondary. Remember to praise the appropriate and ignore the incorrect. The appropriate will become paramount and the incorrect will minimize. When behaviors are intense and aggressive, sensory and behavior plans are intertwined in an artful, skillful manner always looking for the opportunity to organize and shape up behaviors.


Gail Spina

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