Introduction to Sensory Processing Concepts

Return to Learning Opportunities

Sensory processing is a complex set of actions that enable the brain to understand what is going on both inside your own body and in the world around you. We have been conducting a number of studies to understand sensory processing a little better. In this section of our web site, we will introduce the basic concepts about sensory processing so you can then use this knowledge when you explore other parts of the web site.

Directions: If you see a word that is bold underline, then click on it to get a definition and some references for that concept.

Let’s start with the basic idea of Sensory Processing.

First you must understand the difference between Sensory Processing and Sensory Acuity. Sensory acuity is the actual physical ability of the sensory organs to receive input, while sensory processing is the ability to interpret the information the brain has received. We address acuity needs with devices such as glasses and hearing aids. We address processing needs with changes in activities, instructions, environments and practice. The intervention sections will delve into ideas for processing needs in more detail.

Your brain has a lot of work to do throughout the day. There is a continuous flow of information available from all the sensory systems, and the brain must sort through the information, prioritize and emphasize components, to decide both how to understand what is going on and to decide what you will do based on the information available.

When we were beginning to study sensory processing, we learned that there were two primary factors that contributed to our understanding of the overall concept of sensory processing. The first factor to consider is neurological thresholds, or the way the nervous system responds to sensory input.

The second factor to consider is self regulation strategies that a person uses; these may be associated with your temperament and personality. Self regulation strategies are the ways that people manage the input that is available to them.

Within this perspective, we talk about RESPONSIVENESS to refer to the way that you respond to demands in your life. Many things can affect your responsiveness, including the demands of an activity, the characteristics of environments or the way that a person’s self regulation strategies affect daily life. When your nervous system is responding too much, we call it hyper-responsive (or overresponsive), and when you are responding too little, we call it hypo-responsive (or under responsive). We all have times when we are hyper responsive or hyporesponsive; it is only when an extreme response interferes with everyday life that we would worry about this.

When you look at the relationship between neurological thresholds and self regulation strategies, we can identify four basic patterns of responding to sensory events in everyday life. Let’s look at each one in turn; you can look at the diagram to see how they fit together.

Sensation Seeking is the combination of high neurological thresholds and an active self regulation strategy.

Low Registration is the combination of high neurological thresholds and a passive self regulation strategy.

Sensation Avoiding is the combination of low neurological thresholds and an active self regulation strategy.

Sensory Sensitivity is the combination of low neurological thresholds and a passive self regulation strategy.

Click on an area of the diagram to get more information

picture of sensory continuum

In addition to considering these patterns of sensory processing, you have to also consider how each of your sensory systems responds. You probably wont have the same responses with each sensory system. For example, you might have sensitivity for sounds, and yet not notice visual or touch stimuli.

Although we might identify with one pattern of sensory processing, the truth is that each person has an amount of each pattern of sensory processing. You might see yourself as primarily a sensation seeker, and still have some sensitivity to certain sensations. For example, you might really enjoy movement, visual experiences and textures, and be very sensitive to sounds. It is understanding your own patterns and the patterns of your family and friends that is helpful.

Return to Learning Opportunities | Home Page