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Sensory Processing: Connecting with the External World


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If you have any involvement or experience within the autism population then the term ‘sensory processing’ has come up more than once.

Sensory processing is how our brain relates information from the external world to the internal world.  This is done via our five senses: vision, auditory, touch, olfaction, and taste, as well as from the sense of movement (vestibular system), and/or the positional sense (proprioception). These brain-external world connections start forming before birth and continue to develop as the person matures and interacts with his/her environment.  Our ability to take in the world around us allows for accurate perceptions of the environment.  When we understand our environment, our protective reactions increase along with and feelings of safety.

Those with sensory processing deficits still receive information from the senses, but the information is perceived abnormally and processed in the brain in an unusual way.  Dysfunctional sensory processing results in hyper- or hypo- sensitivity to external stimuli; meaning those who experience it often encounter over stimulation or under stimulation. For example, a flickering light can seem like a strobe light, the iPod turned to its maximum volume might seem like the only way to understand the music, and certain fabrics may feel like wearing sand paper.  These misinterpretations of the senses can lead to irritability, distractibility, hyper activity, self-injurious behaviors, or stereotyped behaviors.

Sensory processing difficulties are not considered an official characteristic for a diagnosis of autism; however I have yet to work with a client who did not have some degree of sensory processing difficulty.  Most typical behaviors associated with autism are related to meeting the needs of the senses: rocking, spinning, head banging, vocal inflection etc.  Both my office and a majority of the classrooms at our specialized school are designed with sensory processing in mind, from the lighting, to the sound reducing head phones, to the weighted vests, and even the presence of squishy stress balls.

Sensory integration techniques and play with your child can increase attention, awareness, and reduce overall agitation.  Every parent and teacher can create a “sensory diet” specific to each individual child’s needs by increasing or decreasing the surrounding sensory input.   Check out these great links for ideas to create the perfect sensory diet for your child to make their world more enjoyable:

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Contributed by Kids Like Me Assistant Director, Jessica Bernal


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