What is Sensory Processing?

We are all sensory beings, experiencing the external world and the internal world of our bodies via our senses. Everything you experience and do involves your senses.

The term sensory processing (or sensory integration) refers to the way our brains take in, process, and respond to sensory information from the environment and from within our own bodies. It's our brain's way of understanding the world around us and what's happening inside us - and whether to react to or ignore that information.

Sensory processing is important in everything we need to do daily, such as getting dressed, eating, moving around, socialising, learning and working.

What Are Our Senses?

A sense is a system in our body that gathers and sends information to our nervous system. Our nervous system (which includes the brain, spinal cord, and nerves) processes this information and uses it, in conjunction with information from our memories, to help us respond appropriately.

You perhaps learnt in school that you have five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell), but we have actually identified eight senses:

Vision (sight)

Illustration of a child in brown trousers and a yellow hoodie. They hold a card up to their face with a drawing of an eye on it.

Our sense of vision allows us to see and perceive the world around us using our eyes. Our eyes focus on and capture an image, but the image needs to be interpreted by our brain before we can make sense of what we're seeing. Vision helps us recognise colours, shapes, and objects. 

Auditory (hearing)

Illustration of a boy holding a card up to the side of his face, it has a drawing of an ear on it.

The auditory sense enables us to hear and process sounds. Auditory processing enables us to be aware of sounds and understand what they mean. It's a complicated process where different parts of your ear and the auditory nervous system work together smoothly so we can understand spoken language, enjoy music, and be aware of our environment.

Gustatory (taste)

Illustration of a boy in shorts and t-shirt. He holds a card to his face with a drawing of a mouth on it.

The gustatory sense helps us to detect different flavours, guiding us towards calorie-rich food and away from spoiled food or toxic substances. It helps us enjoy and distinguish between different tastes, like sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.

Olfactory (smell)

Illustration of a girl wearing dungarees. She holds a card in front of her face with a drawing of a nose on it.

The olfactory sense helps us detect different odours or scents using our nose. It helps us identify and remember various smells, such as flowers, food, or perfumes.

Tactile (touch)

Illustration of a girl in a red dress, holding her hands together. She holds a card with an image of a hand on it.

The tactile sense allows us to feel physical sensations through our skin. It helps us perceive textures, temperatures, vibration, pressure, and pain. We have a greater concentration of tactile sensors in our hands, feet and mouth.

Proprioception

Illustration of a boy hugging himself tightly. He wears a blue t-shirt and black trousers.

Proprioception (pro-pree-uh-sep-shuhn) is the sense that helps us know where our body is in space and how our body parts are positioned without needing to look. Can you touch your right forefinger to your left elbow tip when your eyes are closed? Could you hold an egg without breaking it by squeezing too hard? Can you bring a cup of water to your mouth at the right speed so the water doesn't slosh into your face? Proprioception enables you to do all this. It helps us coordinate our movements, including their force and speed.

Vestibular

Illustration of a girl balancing on one leg with outstretched arms.

The vestibular sense helps us maintain balance, orientation, and spatial awareness. It involves the inner ear and provides information about movement, gravity, and changes in position. Imagine you had your eyes closed and then you tilted your body forward in your chair - you'd immediately have a sensation of how your body’s position was changing in relation to gravity. This is your vestibular system at work. It also works with your vision so you can keep your eyes focused when moving.

Interoception

Illustration of a boy in shorts and t-shirt. He holds a card in front of his stomach, it has a spiral design drawn on it.

The sense of interoception helps us perceive internal sensations and bodily functions, such as hunger, thirst, heartbeat, and body temperature. It helps us understand and respond to our body's needs. Interoception includes all the signals from your internal organs, including your cardiovascular system, your lungs, your gut, your bladder and your kidneys. 

A lot of the work to understand these signals happens without you even realising it: you won't notice the behind-the-scenes communication between your brain and body that keeps things like your blood pressure stable. But there are other signals, like when your bladder is full, that you are consciously aware of. Researchers have shown that how well we notice signals from inside our bodies can affect how we manage our feelings and how likely we are to have problems with our mental health, including anxiety and depression.

These senses work together to help our brain create a picture of the world and ourselves.

What Are Sensory Processing Challenges?

We all experience sensory processing differences, but some people's differences make everyday activities hard, and that's when we use the term sensory processing challenges. You may also see the terms 'sensory integration difficulties', 'sensory issues', 'sensory processing difficulties' or 'sensory processing disorder' used.

For example, your child may be more or less sensitive to sound than you, and as a result, their sensory system may send different signals to their brain than your sensory system would send to your brain. So your child might find a noisy restaurant upsetting and distracting, whilst you may barely notice the background noise. Or they may not be aware that you are calling their name for the tenth time if they are looking at something else.

Some people may struggle with processing input from one specific sense, like vision or hearing, while others may have trouble integrating input from multiple sensory systems. 

So, sometimes sensory processing differences can make it hard for your child to handle sensory information, make sense of it, and react appropriately. And these sensory processing challenges can affect how your child or teen prefers to spend their time and what they feel able to do on a day-to-day basis.

Are There Different Types of Sensory Processing Challenges?

There's a lot more to sensory processing challenges than finding it tough to tolerate certain noises, lights or textures. 

We can think of sensory processing challenges as forming two broad categories, each with two subcategories. It's important to note that children can experience one or both categories of sensory processing challenges.

Sensory Modulation Problems

Sensory modulation refers to the brain's ability to filter out and tune into the sensory information that it needs to make sense of the information required for participation in a task. Effective modulation means that we can ignore sensory input not relevant to the task that we are completing.

Within this broad category, there are two types of sensory modulation problems: over-responsivity and under-responsivity to sensory information. It's important to know that a person can be both over-sensitive and under-sensitive in the same sense. Also, how sensitive we are to sensations can change depending on the situation. For example, in stressful situations, we might be more or less aware of the things we feel, hear, or see.

Over-Responsivity

People with over-responsivity may have heightened reactions to sensory input. They may:

  • Be sensitive to touch, finding activities like nail cutting, messy play, or hair cutting uncomfortable
  • React strongly to loud or sudden sounds
  • Avoid playground equipment like swings and slides because they find them overwhelming
  • Be very picky about certain foods based on their textures, colours, temperatures, etc.



Under-Responsivity

People with under-responsivity may have a reduced reaction to sensory input. They may:

  • Appear fearless or not notice when they are in pain
  • Seek out more sensory input, such as fidgeting, rocking, or running around
  • Frequently mouth or chew on objects
  • Show poor attention to their surroundings or the people around them


Praxis Problems (Dyspraxia)

Praxis refers to how our brain plans and carries out movements we haven't done before. It's like learning to jump for children or acquiring skills such as driving or using chopsticks for adults. When sensory information is not processed effectively, it can make new movements challenging because the child has difficulty understanding their body's position and figuring out how much force, speed, and direction to use. People with praxis difficulties may appear clumsy or awkward in their movements. These motor (movement) planning difficulties are often called dyspraxia.

Again, we can think of there being two subtypes of this kind of sensory processing challenge. These are a bit trickier to understand (and say!): Vestibular Bilateral Integration and Sequencing (VBIS); and Somatodyspraxia.

Vestibular Bilateral Integration and Sequencing (VBIS)

VBIS refers to challenges in performing tasks that require using both sides of the body together effectively, such as walking, running, or maintaining good posture. Children with this kind of sensory processing challenge may 

  • Appear clumsy
  • Struggle with skilled coordination of actions that require efficient timing and spatial accuracy, eg running to catch or kick a ball
  • Have difficulty crossing the midline (moving their limbs across the centre of their body to the opposite side)
  • Have difficulty with completing multi-step activities
  • Have difficulty with tasks that involve the integration of vision and movement


Somatodyspraxia

Somatodyspraxia relates to difficulties with carrying out new physical activities that require precise coordination and planning. Children with this kind of sensory processing challenge may 

  • Appear clumsy
  • Have difficulty planning and organising the sequences of movements in activities such as cutting with scissors or riding a bicycle
  • Have difficulty with daily activities such as getting dressed, using a knife and fork
  • Bump into and/ or trip over things frequently
  • Taking longer to learn skills such as tying shoelaces, dressing, writing or ball skills
  • Have poor gross motor control when running, climbing, jumping, and going up and down stairs
  • Have difficulty when transitioning from one activity to another
  • Have low self-esteem


Therapists qualified in Sensory Integration use this approach to understand and assist children facing sensory processing challenges. They come up with personalised plans, including special activities, to help children and teenagers better handle sensory information. This can make a big difference in how they do everyday things, interact with others, and perform in school or at work. These therapists also suggest changes to home, school, or work settings that can be helpful.

How Can I Tell If My Child Has Sensory Processing Challenges?

Figuring out if certain behaviours are connected to your child’s sensory needs and how this affects their everyday activities can be challenging. Here are a few examples of behaviours in children and teens that could be linked to differences in how they process sensory input:

Sensitivity to Noise: Your child covers their ears, becomes easily overwhelmed, or reacts strongly to loud or sudden noises like a hand dryer. They may cry, become anxious, or try to escape from the noise.

Avoidance of Certain Textures: Your child refuses to touch or wear certain fabrics, avoids messy play, or becomes upset when their hands or feet get dirty.

Strong Clothing Preferences: Your child may be extremely sensitive to certain clothing labels, seams, or textures, leading to discomfort or irritation. They may prefer specific types of clothing or refuse to wear certain items (often socks) altogether.

Picky Eating: Your child has strong aversions to certain textures, smells, or tastes of food, limiting their diet to a narrow range of preferred foods.

Intolerance to Bright Lights: Your child squints, covers their eyes, or avoids bright lights. They may prefer dimly lit environments or wear sunglasses indoors.

Overwhelm in Crowded Places: Your child becomes anxious, irritable, or overwhelmed in busy or crowded environments such as shopping centres, parties, or school assemblies. They might find using public transportation challenging for the same reason.

Difficulty With Transitions: Your child struggles with transitioning from one activity or place to another, becoming upset, resistant, or disoriented during these transitions.

Sensory Seeking Behaviours: Your child constantly seeks sensory input by touching, jumping, spinning, or crashing into objects. They may have difficulty staying still or engaging in quiet activities.

Poor Balance and Coordination: Your child may have difficulty with balance, coordination, and spatial awareness, leading to clumsiness, frequent falls, or bumping into objects.

Difficulties With Planning and Organising: Your child may have difficulty with coming up with ideas or plans, and something quite simple might be hard for them to organise.

Sensory Meltdowns: Your kid may have intense reactions or meltdowns triggered by sensory overload, which can include crying, screaming, or having difficulty calming down.

This is not an exhaustive list but do any of these behaviours sound familiar? How your child or teen copes with their sensory processing difference also very much depends on their resources at the moment. For example, are they already over-stimulated, hungry, or exhausted from dealing with the demands of the day? Let's also state loud and clear that behaviours aren't the sum of your creative, unique, vibrant, loving child.

How Can I Help My Child With Sensory Processing Challenges?

There is a lot you can do to support your child or teenager at home and to empower them to manage their sensory processing challenges better. Small changes can make big differences. 

Unpicking where difficulties are due to sensory processing differences or other medical causes is challenging. For example, difficulties with processing sound can have the same outward behaviour as hearing loss. You should talk to your GP in the first instance to rule out other causes. A therapist qualified in sensory integration therapy will be able to assess your child’s sensory needs and profile and, if appropriate, create a tailored plan of therapy plus explain specific changes that you can try at home and school.

However, we understand the frustration of parents and carers facing long waiting lists and long travel times to access therapists qualified to help with their child's sensory issues. Sensory Help Now offers parents a way to get their questions answered by a qualified professional whilst they seek more tailored, in-person support. Sensory Help Now cannot replace the role of a therapist, but we are here to support you as you search for one. Find out more about the services and resources included in a Sensory Help Now subscription. Also, check out our page of free resources and our blog for useful tips.

Sensory Processing Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do Children Grow Out of Sensory Processing Challenges?

    Individuals can learn techniques to better manage their self-regulation and sensory needs, and they may find this easier as they mature. There is no evidence that individuals 'outgrow' sensory processing challenges and there is plenty of evidence to show that adults can have sensory processing challenges.

  • What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

    The term Sensory Processing Disorder is not recognised as an independent diagnosis in the UK, although you may see it used to describe sensory processing challenges or sensory integration challenges.

  • Can We Get Therapy for Sensory Processing Challenges on the NHS?

    Please note that access to therapists with sensory integration training via NHS routes varies greatly and can be extremely limited. For example, NHS provision may be limited to specific services or may be only available to individuals who have specific diagnoses (eg, autism) or who attend certain schools. With this caveat in mind, it is still worth checking NHS provision in your area.

  • What Is the Difference Between Sensory Integration and Sensory Processing?

    The terms “sensory processing” and “sensory integration” both refer to the processes in the brain that allow us to take the signals from our senses, make sense of those signals and respond appropriately. Therapists tend to use a particular term depending on where they trained, but many use the terms interchangeably. We use 'sensory processing' on this site because more parents and carers seem familiar with this term.

  • Are Sensory Processing Challenges Common?

    More common than you may think. Because sensory processing challenges can co-occur with diagnoses including autism, ADHD, OCD, genetic syndromes and learning disabilities, as well as with no other diagnosis at all, it’s difficult to put an exact figure on the prevalence. A 2009 study, found that one in every six children has sensory processing issues that make it hard to learn and function in school. Other studies have confirmed sensory processing challenges are more common in autistic children and children with special education needs; and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

  • What is Sensory Integration Therapy?

    Sensory integration therapy (or SI interventions) includes structured exposure to sensory input; movement therapy; balance treatments; carefully designed and customised physical activities; and accommodations (eg, changes to the environment or routine). The goal of these therapies is to improve how the child's brain processes sensory information, help them regulate their emotions and behaviour, and develop important skills they need for everyday life. These activities are customised to meet each child's unique needs and aim to make their daily experiences easier and more enjoyable.

  • What is ASI?

    Ayres Sensory Integration® or ASI therapy is named after the pioneer of sensory integration theory and therapy: Dr A Jean Ayres. ASI is a trademarked therapy for use by trained healthcare professionals. It is a very specific way of assessing and working with people with sensory processing challenges.

  • Which Therapists Treat Sensory Processing Challenges?

    Sensory integration therapy should only be carried out by a qualified SI Practitioner: this is a qualified occupational therapist, speech and language therapist or physiotherapist who has undertaken additional, rigorous postgraduate training in sensory integration. This training involves developing a detailed understanding of the neuroscience and evidence base underpinning sensory integration as well as developing expertise in assessing and providing intervention for people with sensory integration or sensory processing challenges.

  • Are Sensory Processing Challenges Linked With Autism?

    Studies have confirmed sensory processing challenges are common in autistic children. However, children can experience sensory processing challenges without any other diagnosis, including autism.

  • Are Sensory Processing Challenges Linked With ADHD?

    Research links ADHD with some kinds of sensory processing challenges. It can be challenging to discern where behaviour is due to ADHD or sensory processing differences and more studies are needed in this area.

  • Is Picky Eating Due to Sensory Processing Challenges?

    Your child's eating issues (perhaps only eating certain foods, colours or textures) and their feeding issues (being able to sit up straight enough and co-ordinate movements to feed themselves) could be due to underlying sensory processing challenges. There are several other possible causes which should also be considered by your healthcare professional. A sensory integration trained therapist would be able to assess your child and make recommendations specific to them.

  • What Evidence is There to Support Sensory Processing and Sensory Integration Theories?

    There is growing evidence supporting the underpinning theory of sensory processing and integration and the effective use of sensory integration based therapy. Read more about this evidence base on our parent site Sensory Integration Education.

  • How Can I Access Sensory Integration Therapy?

    See our guide on how to access sensory integration therapy. It explains the different routes available to you in the UK.