Exploring the Line Between
Personal Quirks and Functional
by Jenny Lujan, OTR
Definition of Sensory
Sensory processing refers to the
ability to take information from our
senses (touch, movement, smell,
taste, vision, and hearing) and put it
together with prior information,
memories, and knowledge stored in
the brain to make a meaningful
Definition of Sensory
Sensory processing occurs in the
central nervous system and is
generally thought to take place in the
portions of the brain responsible for
such tasks as coordination, muscle
tone, attention, arousal levels,
autonomic functioning, emotions,
memory and higher-level cognitive
Sensory Processing Abilities
The way an individual processes and
responds to sensation has an impact on
their daily life activities and activity
choices. (Zuckerman, 1994, & Dunn, 1997)
Atypical sensory processing refers to both
hyper and hypo reactivity to sensation.
Poor or atypical sensory processing abilities
have been associated with problems in social
participation and behavioral self-regulation, as
well as learning, leisure, and occupational
activities. (Dunn, 2001)
Sensory Processing Abilities
Other common behavioral
manifestations of atypical sensory
processing include distractibility,
impulsiveness, abnormal activity level,
disorganization, anxiety, and
emotional lability. (Mallioux and Parham, 1995)
Sensory Systems are the
Building Blocks
Position Sense
Proprioception is the information you receive from
your muscles about where your body parts are and
where your body is in space :
This information allows us to know where our body is
when we close our eyes.
These sensory receptors are in our muscles and tendons.
It also helps to regulate how you feels about your body
and the environment around you.
The brain needs continuous and current information
about your body, so it can plan how to use the body to do
Movement Sense
This is the sensory system that responds to
changes in head position, to body movement
through space, and regulates our balance system.
It also coordinates movements of the eyes, head, and
The receptors are located in the inner ear.
Accurate processing of vestibular information is what
allows us to easily move through our environments.
The vestibular system also helps keep the level of arousal
of the nervous system balanced.
Touch Sense (Tactile)
Tactile refers to our sense of touch and to the
information our body gets through the skin.
Our sense of touch is important because it helps us learn
about our body and the environment we live in.
Some of the tactile receptors are close to the surface of
the skin and others are deep in the skin.
Light Touch gives the brain an alerting message, “Pay
attention”. It is a useful sensation to increase a person’s
awareness of what is going on.
Touch Pressure sensation occurs when you get a firm
touch on your skin. Many people find comfort in touch
pressure input.
Oral Sense (Gustatory)
The sense of taste provides sensory
information that is critical for monitoring
and controlling the ingestion of food,
including swallowing and salivation.
There are many gustatory sense receptors in
our mouth that we can get a lot of information
Visual Sense
Vision is the process of gathering,
analyzing, storing, and responding to light
Vision includes visual acuity (seeing),
coordination of the two eyes, focusing, eye
movement control, and visual perceptual skills.
When we use our eyes, we are developing visual
maps, which we use with our body maps to
figure out how to move around successfully.
Sound Sense (Auditory)
Audition is the process of hearing.
Hearing, adequate auditory processing
(understanding what is being said), and language
response is an important aspect for one's
interaction with the environment.
We collect sound memories that allow us to
distinguish what an object is or who a person is
by sound alone.
Sound travels across distances and we learn to
associate sound with distance.
Smell Sense (Olfactory)
Your sense of smell processes odors and
can distinguish between thousands of
Olfactory information travels not only to the
limbic system (which governs emotions,
behaviors, and memory storage) but also to the
brain's cortex, where conscious thought occurs.
It combines with taste information in the brain
to create the sensation of flavor.
Sensory Processing
“The way a person processes sensory information
is just that-the way the person processes sensory
information. No way of processing sensory
information is inherently good or bad-it just is.”
“People with every pattern of sensory processing
are living successfully and unsuccessfully…”
[A sensory difference] “is not a problem to
resolve; living a satisfying life is the challenge to
(Dunn, 2001)
Sensory Processing
There are many ways to look at how individuals
process sensory information.
Instead of looking at how an individual process
each type of sensory input, Winnie Dunn, OTR
developed a working foundation that there are
four sensory preferences that influence how each
of us relate to the sensory stimuli that are in our
everyday life.
After determining what are the sensory preferences, we
can look at if an individual’s processing is causing
functional impairments in his or her life.
Dunn describes the four types of sensory
differences as follows:
Low Registration
Types of Sensory
Low Registration.
Individuals with low registration tend to miss or
take longer to respond to things in their
These individuals tend to have trouble reacting to
rapidly presented or low-intensity stimuli.
However, these individuals find it easier to focus on
tasks of interest in distracting environments.
They tend to be more flexible and comfortable in a
wide range of sensory environments.
Sensation Seeking
Types of Sensory
Sensation Seeking
Individuals with sensory seeking behaviors create
additional stimuli or look for environments that
provide sensory stimuli. They do this in order to
activate their arousal system.
An interest in exploring the environment is a
feature of individuals with sensory seeking
These individuals find sensory experiences
However, these individuals tend to become bored
easily and may find low-stimulus environments
Sensory Sensitivity
Types of Sensory
Sensory Sensitivity
Individuals with sensory sensitivity respond readily
to sensory stimuli.
Behaviors associated with sensory sensitivity
include distractibility and discomfort caused by
intense stimuli.
These individuals have a tendency to notice each
stimulus as it presents itself.
However, some advantages of sensory sensitivity
include a high level of awareness of the environment
and an ability to discriminate or attend to detail
Sensation Avoiding
Types of Sensory
Sensation Avoiding
Individuals who engage in sensation avoiding
behaviors are overwhelmed or bothered by sensory
stimuli. Consequently, sensation avoiders actively
engage with their environments to reduce sensory
Individuals with sensation avoiding tendencies may
use ritual to increase predictability of their sensory
However, advantages of sensation avoiding include
the ability to create structure and environments
that provided limited sensory stimuli, as well as
tolerance-even an enjoyment- of being alone.
General Treatment Ideas For All Types
of Sensory Processing Differences
Use of visuals can be especially helpful
with helping others deal with sensory
processing differences.
Use of visual schedules can provide
structure so that children and adolescents
who are sensory seekers will know when
more movement activities will happen.
A visual schedule will also provide children
and adolescents who are sensory sensitive
or avoiders with the opportunity to prepare
for the upcoming activity.
General Treatment Ideas For All Types
of Sensory Processing Differences
The use of sensory choice boards can
provide younger children with the
opportunity to control what type of
sensory input they receive to help calm
their bodies.
The use of social stories about sensory
behaviors can be helpful.
These can also be called “Sensory Stories”.
Sample Visual
General Treatment Ideas For
Low Registration
Goal of Intervention is to Increase
Intensity of Sensory Experiences in
Daily Activities.
Ask others to slow down, speak up, and
repeat as needed.
Have child/adolescent explain or repeat
information back to you to make sure he or
she has processed what was said.
Use an alarm for reminders.
Make visual cues more noticeable- underline,
bold, highlight, use color, etc.
Ideas For Low Registration
More Ideas include:
Place important objects (school supplies, backpack)
in the same obvious place each day.
Use lists, reminders, date books, calendars, etc. as
Talk self through a task to make sure of awareness
of all steps.
Visit places that have a variety of sensory
experiences (parks, zoos, interactive exhibits).
Be aware of safety measures when the child or
adolescent is moving about (may not notice objects,
stairs, changes in terrain).
Information obtained in part from Sensory Profile Supplement, Winnie Dunn.
Information is reproducible.
General Treatment Ideas For
Sensory Seeking
Goal of Intervention is to Increase
Intensity of Sensory Experiences In Daily
This will help the child/adolescent to use more
appropriate avenues to get the sensory
stimulation that their bodies are seeking.
A caveat for remembering general
treatment ideas for sensory seeking is
that Proprioception (deep pressure) is a
child’s/adolescent’s friend.
Ideas For Sensory Seeking
Ideas that can easily be incorporated into every
day include:
Several times a day, provide a crunchy or chewy type of
snack such as fresh apples, carrots, fruit roll-ups, fresh
almonds, fruit leather, dried pasta, gum etc
Provide with regular opportunities to run and play
throughout the day. Be sure to monitor for safety.
Because actions are often driven by the need for increased
sensory input, the child or adolescent requires concrete
information about what activities are safe.
For example, tell and show what places can safely be jumped
off of (i.e. the front porch, the last 2 steps of the stair
case, etc.). Also tell and show what places can not jumped
or fallen off of. (i.e. the top of the tree, the top of the
playground equipment, the top of the stairs, etc.)
Ideas For Sensory Seeking
Encourage participation in a "hard work" activity
3x/day (mopping the floor, pushing or pulling heavy
objects, doing push-ups, etc.). More ideas include:
Staple paper onto the bulletin boards
Move the furniture in the classroom.
Carrying a heavy backpack.
Be sure to only put weight in the backpack that
equals 10%-20% of the child's body weight.
At home, encourage participation in physically
demanding work activities such as:
Yard work
Digging in the dirt to help plant flowers.
Sweep the sidewalks, playground, etc.
Raking grass/leaves.
Ideas For Sensory Seeking
Promote engagement in a physical activity
before a thinking task.
Allow child/adolescent to hold onto objects
such as fidget toys or weighted lap buddy
during table top activities and/or
circle/group time.
Allow use of disc-o-sit cushions or therapy
ball chairs in the classroom.
Ideas For Sensory Seeking
A study was completed by Pfeiffer B, Henry A, Miller S, and
Witherell, S. and was reported in the American Journal of
Occupational Therapy, 2008, May-June.
“Effectiveness of Disc 'O' Sit cushions on attention to task
in second-grade students with attention difficulties”.
Sixty-three second-grade students participated in the study. 31
students were assigned to a treatment group, and 32 were assigned
to a control group. Treatment group participants used Disc 'O' Sit
cushions throughout the school day for a 2-week period.
The teachers completed the Behavior Rating Inventory of
Executive Functioning (Gioia, Isquith, Guy, & Kenworthy, 1996) for
each participant before and after the intervention.
An analysis of variance identified a statistically significant
difference in the attention to task before and after the
intervention for the treatment group.
The results of the study provide preliminary evidence for the use
of the Disc 'O' Sit cushion as an occupational therapy intervention
to improve attention in the school setting.
Ideas For Sensory Seeking
More ideas include:
Make a "Smell Good Station“ using cotton balls and
small containers (film canisters)
Certain types of smells can be calming and
comforting. The following are calming Scents
almond extract, apple extract, banana
extract, chamomile, cinnamon extract,
lavender, pine needles, vanilla extract,
peppermint extract,gingerbread cookies
Organized sports
Track and Field
Martial Arts
General Treatment Ideas For
Sensory Sensitivity
Goal of Intervention is to Provide Structured
Patterns of Sensory Experiences in Daily
Limit the amount of information/steps provided at
any one time.
Reduce the volume or the amount of auditory
Use earplugs, white noise, or calming repetitive
sounds (i.e. fan) to drown out distracting noises.
When having a conversation or passing on important
information, decrease background noise
Ideas For Sensory Sensitivity
More ideas include.
Look for opportunities to engage in small groups
activities or in one-on-one situations versus large
When completing work that requires focus, go to a
quiet area of the room.
Maintain consistency and try to reduce disruptions.
Establish routines that are comforting and
Incorporate breaks and time-outs into her daily
Use proprioceptive activities to help calm the body.
Information obtained in part from Sensory Profile Supplement, Winnie Dunn. Information is
General Treatment Ideas For
Sensory Avoiding
Goal of Intervention is to Decrease
Sensory Experiences in Daily Activities.
Provide written instructions or pictures to
supplement verbal information.
Designate an assigned desk or work area
with sufficient space to prevent
Incorporate need for personal distance
from others in sitting arrangements and
Ideas For Sensory Avoiding
More Ideas include:
Limit large group exposure; find opportunities for
small groups or one-on-one interaction.
Develop routines for outings to familiar places.
Limit large unstructured time in public.
Select non-peak times for outings and errands.
Incorporate routine and repetition in movement
Encourage “quiet”time or opportunities for
sedentary activities.
Information obtained in part from Sensory Profile Supplement, Winnie Dunn. Information is
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