What is Sensory Processing?
Sensory processing is a term used to describe how the information we receive from our eight senses is noticed, sorted, and used by our brain.
For most children, the development of sensory processing occurs as part of normal development. When we experience different sensations, through play and activities, our bodies develop skills to accurately notice and use this sensory information.
We all have sensory processing differences and these change throughout our lives. Some of us like very strong tastes and others avoid them. Some people enjoy roller coaster rides whilst others would avoid even a merry-go-round. If we can manage to take part in the things we want and need to do, then these sensory processing differences don’t need support.
For some children, their sensory development is different. This can be for various reasons including a delay in their development or because of a neurodivergence such as Autism or ADHD. These differences may mean that they struggle to take part in everyday childhood occupations. Perhaps they are so distressed by noise they can’t go to a friend’s party, or they hit out when someone brushes up against them as they experience it as painful.
The Role of Occupational Therapists in Supporting Sensory Processing Differences
Occupational Therapists (often known as OTs) work with people to help them do the things they need and want to do in their daily lives. These things are called our occupations. For children and young people their main occupations are self-care, play and being able to access education and learning typically in school.
Occupational Therapists assess children’s skills for completing their daily activities. They may provide advice and support to allow the child or young person to take part in these activities in meaningful ways.
Differences processing sensory information may be one factor which contributes to a child having difficulties with their everyday occupations. Children’s Occupational Therapists have the skills to identify an individual’s sensory strengths and differences and their impact on daily activities as part of their assessment of a person’s occupational performance.
Whilst additional training is available, there is no specified level of qualification in sensory processing / integration specified or expected of occupational therapists by the Health and Care Professions Council (the regulator of occupational therapists in the UK) to assess or work with sensory processing differences.
There are many ways of assessing a child’s skills, and we will always try to do this in a fun way which puts the young person at the centre of what we do. The role of an Occupational Therapist is to ensure our assessment is occupational focused, rather than sensory processing focused. This is in keeping with what our governing body states:
Why don’t we use the term: Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder is not included in the Diagnostic Manual as a standalone disorder. As a diagnosis cannot be given, we therefore cannot assess for it. Our position is supported by the RCOT – the governing body for Occupational Therapists in the UK.
The sensory difficulties that some children and young people experience are often part of a wider picture of neurodiversity and are particularly associated with conditions such as Autism or ADHD.
Support when there are Sensory Processing Differences
There are several approaches for managing sensory processing differences. In Somerset we believe that sensory processing differences are best addressed through:
- Supporting the person and those around them to understand their unique sensory preferences and profile
- Support with adapting the task or the environment around the young person to allow them to take part in a meaningful way despite their sensory processing difference
We believe that sensory processing differences in an individual are not a problem that needs to be fixed. Instead, we believe that by adapting the task or the environment we can support people with a range of sensory processing patterns to take part in the activities that matter to them.
There are some approaches to sensory processing that aim to change how a young person’s brain notices and processes sensory information. These approaches use very intensive and direct work with the young person. The most common of these is called Ayres Sensory Integration or Sensory Integration Therapy.
There is currently very little evidence to support these approaches and they remain in an area which is heavily debated and poorly evidenced. Therefore, in line with the strongest evidence base currently available, and guidance from the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, we do not routinely provide Sensory Integration Therapy in Somerset. We will review this position statement on at least an annual basis and as new evidence emerges.