Sensory Processing and Developmental Disorders

In the DIR/Floortime™ Approach we look at a child’s strengths and weaknesses in their development and come to understand the child’s “Individual Differences” (the “I” in DIR). These Individual Differences include the child’s sensory profile, sensory processing capacities, regulatory capacities, motor profile, and motor planning capacities. Many children with a developmental disorder such as ASD or a developmental delay present with differences in their sensory processing. Sensory experiences include touch, movement, body awareness, sight, sound, smell, taste and pull of gravity. The process of the brain organising and interpreting this information is called Sensory Integration. This Sensory integration provides a crucial foundation for later, more complex learning and behaviour.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor or behavioural responses. Whether you are biting into an apple, reading a spelling list, learning to ride a bike, or attempting to walk up the stairs, your successful completion of the activity requires accurate processing of sensation. SPD exists when sensory signals are either not detected or don’t get organised into appropriate responses. Pioneering Occupational Therapist, Educational Psychologist, and Neuroscientist Jean Ayres, PhD, likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.

Sensory Processing Disorder can affect people in only one sense (for example, just touch, or just movement) or it can affect multiple senses. One particular person with SPD may be over-responsive to touch/tactile sensation and may find being touched, having their hair/nails cut or other tactile input to be unbearable. Or the child may be unable to tolerate movement and physical play (such as swings, slides, sports) like other children their age. Other children may be under-responsive to certain sensory input and they may show little or no reaction or be slow to respond to certain sensations. For example, they may seek out movement constantly, by climbing, pacing, spinning or by shaking their head side to side. In children whose sensory processing is impaired, their posture and motor skills can also be affected. They can have issues with postural control.

Sensory-based Motor Disorder

This is where the child has trouble controlling, planning and supporting their movements in a smooth, coordinated and sequenced way. A child with a sensory based motor disorder may present with Dyspraxia (difficulty processing sensory information to create physical, unfamiliar or sequenced movements i.e motor planning such as learning to ride a bike) or a Postural Disorder (where the child has difficulties maintaining control of their bodies in order to meet the demands of a given motor task e.g remaining in a sitting position to manipulate toys or drawing utensils).

Motor planning is the instinctive “know how” in approaching a novel motor task, the ability to automatically make your body do what you want it to do, without having to consciously think of every step of the task. The child’s ability to accurately perceive and process sensory information from his body’s interaction with the environment is essential for motor planning. The components of motor planning include: ideation, motor sequencing, motor execution and adaptability.

Therapy is enjoyable and most children will have fun participating in therapy sessions despite how hard they are working! The aim of therapy is to impact the development of how the body responds to the sensory messages it receives and how to produce meaningful responses. Therapy also aims to educate parents, caregivers, families, and teachers to allow for improved learning and participation at home and school. The therapist helps the child participate in sensory based activities through meaningful play. This helps to activate the neural pathways and provide organization within the central nervous to produce more regulated responses. Therapy aims to provide a neural platform which promotes the development of more complex skills by freeing up the higher cortical levels which are currently being used to process sensory information. Rather than addressing the symptoms, we are addressing the underlying causes which are essential in sustaining change. Some of the techniques used in sensory based therapy may include:

  • Wilbarger Brushing Protocol
  • Therapeutic Listening®
  • Implementing a sensory diet through a home program
  • Environmental modifications to support a child’s sensory processing patterns (support at home and school)
  • Implementation of the Regulation programs (Alert/Zones of Regulation/Mightier) to promote to self-regulation
  • Sensory integrative therapy
  • Oral-motor programs

If you have any question relating to paediatric therapy, contact Kate today.