Sensory processing

  • Overview
    What is sensory processing?

    refers to the way a person’s nervous system manages incoming sensory information.

    People with sensory processing challenges have difficulties receiving information through their senses. They may be extra sensitive or under-sensitive. Here are some descriptions of what it feels like to be extra sensitive:

    “You don’t know what it feels like to be me, when you can’t sit still because your legs feel like they are on fire or it feels like a hundred ants are crawling up your arms.” (Carly Fleischmann, 2009)

    “Our brains are wired differently. We take in many sounds and conversations at once. I take over a thousand pictures of a person’s face when I look at them. That’s why we have a hard time looking at people. I have learnt how to filter through some of the mess.” (Carly Fleischmann, 2009)

    This video by Carly Fleischmann provides an excellent insight into what it’s like living with sensory processing challenges:

    Here is a video explaining sensory processing from a child’s perspective:

    Sensory processing and behaviour

    may exhibit behaviours which are simply an uncontrollable response to their sensory challenges.  For example, some people with autism may cover their ears, flap their hands, hum, rock or bang their head.  Carly Fleischmann explains this behaviour as follows:

    “Because if I don’t it feels like my body is going to explode. It’s just like when you shake a can of coke. If I could stop it I would but it is not like turning a switch off, it does not work that way. I know what is right and wrong but it’s like I have a fight with my brain over it.” (Carly Fleischmann, 2009, describing why she bangs her head).

    “It’s a way for us to drown out all sensory input that over loads us all at once. We create output to block out input.” (Carly Fleischmann, 2009)

    Sensory challenges may also have an impact on a student learning a new skill, for example, Carly Fleischmann describes how she felt the touch of a keyboard to be uncomfortable, so it was very hard to develop typing skills. 

    Despite having quite extreme sensory processing challenges, Carly Fleischmann was able to complete mainstream high school and went on to undertake a Bachelor of Arts at University of Toronto.  She now hosts her own talk show on her YouTube channel, called “Speechless with Carly Fleischmann”.

  • Sensory profile

    can be a valuable resource for teachers to help identify appropriate teaching and learning strategies to accommodate a student’s particular sensitivities.

    A sensory profile is a document that identifies the way a student understands and processes the world around them, in particular identifying any challenges they may have with receiving information through their senses.  Sensitivities may relate to: hearing, vision, tactile (touch), proprioception (the sense of the relative position of one’s body and effort required for movement), movement (vestibular processing), concentration, receptive language (auditory processing) and/or working memory.  The profile will identify if the person is extra sensitive (hypersensitive) or under sensitive (hyposensitive) in each of these areas.

    Importantly, the profile should also identify how the student deals with these sensitivities, and strategies that may assist them.  As discussed in the section above, students with sensory processing challenges may respond to their sensory challenges by exhibiting behaviours such as banging, rocking or humming.  Other behaviours related to sensitivities may include the following:

    1. Difficulty sitting still/needing frequent opportunities to move
    2. Pressing too heavily/too lightly when writing
    3. Over-frequent touching of themselves or objects
    4. Frequently distracted by sounds, colours or movement

    Strategies that might be suggested may include:

    1. Requiring visual prompts to support spoken information
    2. Requiring additional time for processing receptive language
    3. Requiring additional time for planning movements

    from allied health professionals such as occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech pathologists are a very important source of information relevant for a comprehensive student profile and to identify strategies to assist the student to engage in learning opportunities.  Click here for a downloadable list of suggested questions for teachers to give to therapists to assist with completing the student profile.  Note these are suggestions only and may not all be relevant to your student, or there may be other questions you want to add.

    The video below provides further information on the different types of sensory processing challenges and discusses ideas for classroom setup to accommodate these:

  • Strategies

    for helping students with sensory processing challenges will vary considerably depending on the type of sensitivities they have.  As discussed in the video above (in the sensory profile section), some people are hypersensitive, while some are hyposensitive – essentially this means they either seek to avoid sensory input or they seek sensory input.

    Here are some examples of sensitivities and strategies that may help:

    • Those with hyposensitivity may require sensory input in order to concentrate, so may benefit from using a fidget toy to help them listen.
    • Those with hypersensitivity may do better when fewer colours, and/or less bright colours, are used in classrooms.
    • Some students may be hypersensitive to noise, so may benefit from using noise-cancelling headphones in the classroom.
    • Some students may be very sensitive to touch, so may need assistance with activities like lining up or accessing lockers/bags, or even moving into or around a classroom, to minimise their contact with others.  Having arrangements in place for these students, such as allowing them to access the lockers first, can be of great benefit.

    Other strategies might include:

    • Always being first in line
    • Sitting at the back of hall during assembly to minimise exposure to noise
    • Sitting near the exit during assemblies and being allowed to leave (to go to a designated place) if it becomes too much

    Whichever strategy is put in place, it is important that other teachers, students and classmates are informed of the arrangement so there is no confusion and the strategy is implemented consistently across classes and activities.

    Here is a video from Sue Larkey discussing tips that may be helpful for students with sensory processing challenges:

    Here is another Sue Larkey video discussing when sensory tools may be appropriate: