Introduction into Sensory Processing

During the initial years of development, children learn by exploring their environment using their senses and their body. This is called sensory-motor stage of learning and play. This developmental period is crucial for providing a child with the building blocks for further skills development and independent functioning.

The Sensory Systems

Sensations from our body and the environment are received through receptors located in various parts of the body. This information is then processed in the brain, which then sends messages to the body to respond to the situation (motor output).

There are 7 senses, which are:

Vestibular: sense of gravity, equilibrium and movement

  • Sensation is received through receptors in the inner ear, which is sent to the brain to coordinate an appropriate response.  
  • Essential for movement of head and body against gravity, stable posture when seated or standing and balance.
  • Closely linked with visual and auditory systems.
  • Some activities that provide vestibular input are swinging, spinning, rolling, rocking and jumping.

Proprioception: sense of sense of body position and awareness

  • Sensation is received through receptors in the joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles.
  • Essential for the development of body positioning, body awareness and their ability to use an appropriate amount of strength when performing actions.
  • Closely linked with the tactile system.
  • Some activities include weight bearing through limbs, joint compression, massage, joint squeezes, resistive exercises and jumping.

Tactile: sense of touch, pressure, pain and temperature

  • Sensation is received through receptors located in the skin.
  • Important for accurate perception of input on the skin e.g. being able to shower / bath independently without burning themselves, use of hands in precise movements such as buttoning pants and appropriate use of tools such as using cutlery, pencil or scissors.

Visual: sense of sight

  • Received through receptors in the eyes.
  • Accurate perception and processing of visual information allows a person to know where objects are in relation to ones body, judge the size, shape and texture of an object and filter light.

Auditory: hearing

  • Received through receptors located in ear.
  • Accurate perception of sound is important for a person to pick up different types of sound such as, volume, pitch, frequency, rhythm etc.
  • It is also important for a person to be able to process this information quickly and accurately. For example, does your child show a delayed response to instructions?

Gustatory: sense of taste

  • Receptors are located on the tongue and in the mouth.
  • Accurate sense of taste is important for judging quality of food and is related to motivation to eat.
  • Children who have in-accurate perception of taste may either crave or avoid a strong tasting food, which has significant impact on their diet and overall functioning.

Olfactory: Sense of smell

  • Receptors located in the nose.
  • Sense of smell can alert us to whether food has gone bad. It is closely linked to emotions and memories.

These sensory systems are inter-linked. Multiple sensations are processed simultaneously by the brain to produce a coordinated, timely and well-executed response. For example, babies use their vision and hearing at the same time to interact with their parents. When a baby reaches for their caregivers face, they are using a combination of vision (to see their caregiver’s face), vestibular (know which direction to reach), proprioception (know where their arm is) and tactile (to feel their caregiver’s face) at the same time.

Well-working sensory systems are the building blocks to skills and behaviours required for optimal functioning in daily activities. Such as, their attention to a task or person, ability to follow routines at home or at school, their energy levels, gross-motor and fine-motor skills and their independence in self-care activities.

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