Senior Occupational Therapist
“…the world is what your brain tells you it is, and the limitations of your senses sets the boundaries of your conscious experience.” (Coren, Porac, and Ward 1984)
The core feature of our humanity is sensory processing. When we understand the nature of our sensory processing needs, we get information for constructing routines and contexts in daily life.
Dunn and colleagues tested about the relationship between a person’s nervous system operations and self-regulation strategies with different age groups, and in groups with and without specific disabilities. They looked at how the interaction of these functions creates four basic patterns of sensory processing. The result was that the patterns of sensory processing occur in each age group from infancy to adulthood and people with disabilities have both more distinctive and more intense patterns of sensory processing than the peers without disabilities.
Understanding the four basic patterns of sensory processing facilitates the interpretation of one’s behaviors, and tailoring activities and interventions to these patterns promotes better participation and success in the person’s everyday life.
Individuals with high neurological thresholds require more sensory input in order to respond and those are the sensation seekers and the low registration persons.
People that fall into this pattern have high sensory thresholds, which means they do not notice stimuli easily and they are interested in creating sensory experiences for themselves. They use active self-regulation strategies. When someone has a sensation-seeking pattern he derives from sensation in everyday life, so as an example they will look for physical movements such as twirling, swinging, climbing and bouncing. Sensory seekers will also look for additional sensory experiences for themselves, like humming or other mouth noises. They might touch objects, feel vibrations in stereo speakers and appliances, wear perfume and smell flowers in excess.
In this sensory pattern, people do not notice sensory events in daily life. They are the passive response category As an example, they may seem oblivious to their environments and may seem unresponsive or flat in occasions where others exhibit emotions. They may not notice when their faces or hands are dirty or covered with food, or when people enter the room. In addition, you may have to call the person’s name several times or use different cues like touching their shoulder to get the person’s attention.
On the other hand, individuals with low neurological threshold will notice sensory stimuli readily, and pay attention to more sensory events in daily life than others do. Two types of people in this category are the Sensory sensitivity and Sensory avoiding.
People in this sensory pattern are easily distracted by sounds, movements, or smells such as in class or in the market. They notice food textures, temperatures and spices sooner than others do. They may also feel discomfort with clothing tags, elastic or certain fabric textures. This high rate of noticing and continuing to experience all of these is a passive responding strategy.
The people in this pattern will find different ways to reduce sensory input throughout the day. They use an active response strategy, meaning they would purposely try to avoid sensory input. As an example, they would stay away from distracting settings like leaving the room if others begin moving, talking, or bumping into them. They like to create rituals for daily routines, which may be an active way to generate only familiar, predictable sensory patterns for themselves. They also become unhappy when these rituals are disrupted, possibly because of increased unpredictability
The sensory experiences are imbedded within daily life routines (bathing, dressing, mealtime, playing, waking and outings). Therefore therapists consult with families and teachers to identify the challenging routines for the individuals they work with, and construct strategies in order to adjust daily routines so that they accommodate the individual’s sensory processing needs, while allowing them to continue to participate in life activities. The intervention focuses on the individual’s life activities, and sensory processing interventions can be a tool for constructing effective strategies as part of their family routines with those who have intense sensory responses.
However, when intense sensory responses are combined with other characteristics of particular disabilities, adaptive responses (that is, an appropriate response to an environment demand) can be challenging in everyday life. When families and providers are able to understand the meaning of the individual’s behavior from a sensory processing perspective, they can create a more “sensory friendly” environment for them, and by doing so, increase the chances for the person to manage more situations successfully.
Occupational Therapists are the most likely to refrain as the “Therapist” in the vignettes because sensory processing is part of the core knowledge in this profession’s education. The vignettes show functional assessment strategies within the one’s natural context together with standardized assessment to certify impressions; and the ability to make these interpretations and recommendations is built on specialized expertise typically provided by Occupational Therapists. This specialized knowledge also includes the ability to find signs of overload, and the ability to adjust intensity based on skilled observation during the activity.
Consultation with Occupational Therapists provides a way to prepare effective individualized intervention to help individuals with sensory processing needs better cope with everyday life experiences.
Winnie Dunn (2001). The Sensations of Everyday Life: Empirical, Theoretical, and Pragmatic Considerations. The 2001 Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lecture.
Wolters Kluwer Health; Lippincott Williams & Wilkins – Copyright 2007. Supporting Children to Participate Successfully in Everyday Life by Using Sensory Processing Knowledge. Infants and Young Children. Vol.20, No2, pp. 84-101.