Imagine walking down the street and you see me standing there, in a dark trench coat and wide-brimmed hat. "Pssst!" I whisper loudly. "Come closer. I've got a secret and it will immediately give you insight into your child. Into their behaviors, how they learn, and how to help them when they struggle." I've been telling parents, teachers, even physicians about this so-called secret for the last 20 years and most people have never heard it before.
It all starts here, with this pyramid. Williams and Shellenberger (1996) formulated this pyramid of learning and it highlights how sensory integration processing relates to the child’s learning process. This simple visual aide explains how academic learning, daily living activities (like brushing your teeth and getting dressed), even how your child behaves; it all grows and develops from a strong sensory foundation. This foundation is comprised of the 7 sensory systems. Yes, you heard me, 7 sensory systems. You already know about sight (visual), sound (auditory), touch (tactile), taste (gustatory), and smell (olfactory). But for some reason (which still baffles me) no one knows about the movement system (otherwise known as the VESTIBULAR system) and the body-awareness system (otherwise known as the PROPRIOCEPTIVE system).
Everything that we come to expect of our children by the time they reach school-age is dependent upon this foundation. Things like eye-hand coordination (cutting, writing, drawing) and postural control (being able to sit during circle time) develop from these sensory systems. The skill of being able to tune-out all the visual distractions of a classroom while focusing on the teacher when she is talking, that relies on visual discrimination, which is a level of sensory processing. When sensory information is being taken in from the body and the surrounding environment and processed efficiently and accurately by the brain, all these higher-level skills can develop. However, sometimes the information isn't getting processed efficiently, almost like there is a traffic jam on a super-highway. Sometimes it takes longer for the information to get to where it needs to go. And other times, the information is getting off at the wrong exit, and being processed in an area of the brain it should not necessarily be in. When any of this occurs, its called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). 1 in 6 children exhibit signs of Sensory Processing Disorder. And the level of difficulty varies greatly from child to child. Some children have significant difficulty processing sensory information, while for others it can be more mild. However, no matter the level of difficulty, all parents could benefit from understanding the sensory systems and how they impact childhood development.
As an example, lets imagine that the information from the PROPRIOCEPTIVE system (remember, thats the body-awareness system) isn't getting from the muscles and joints to the area of the brain it needs to. Without accurate, internal information about where your body ends and the rest of the world begins, how easy would it be to walk through a doorway without bumping into it? Or if VESTIBULAR processing is inefficient, it certainly would be hard to keep your balance when you bend over to pick something off the floor. The examples are endless, but often they aren't obvious, or can be easily explained away:
"Tom is just clumsy"
"Stephanie just doesn't listen"
"Johnny's just not trying hard enough to learn to write his letters"
"Maddie is reading too fast and skipping words"
"Mike is just being stubborn about not wanting to wear his uniform for school"
Certainly there are cases when these statements can be true. But there are often times when children are trying as hard as they can to be compliant, to listen, to learn, but their sensory processing difficulties are hindering them. Trying as hard as you can to do something and still not being successful~you can imagine how frustrating that would be, especially to a child. Sometimes thats what stands out for parents, how easily frustrated or upset their child gets. Seemingly, without any provocation or without warning, they just get upset. What we can't see is how hard these children are working throughout the day just to do the simple things, the things that should be automatic and unconscious for them. Things like listening to the teacher, keeping their balance on the stairs, standing close to their friends in line; for children with SPD these things require much more conscious thought and effort. And by the end of the day, they're exhausted and all it takes is a simple request for the child to get upset. Of course, some days are easier than others and your child may be better at handling all the challenges that their sensory systems face. But, again, it still takes added effort and energy, which should be devoted to academics and social/emotional learning, not trying to maintain your balance or tolerate being accidentally touched by a classmate.
Sensory processing is something that every one of us is doing unconsciously, every minute of every day. And when our sensory systems are working smoothly, life is much easier, we are happier, and we feel confident and successful. When sensory processing is not working smoothly, life can be much more difficult and challenging. Luckily, there is a way to improve sensory processing and people with Sensory Processing Disorder don't have to struggle their whole lives. I was lucky to find out about these "secret" sensory systems long ago and have spent the last 20 years working with children and families to help improve their sensory processing and in turn, improve their lives. If you suspect either your child, or even yourself of having Sensory Processing Disorder, click on the link below to discuss your concerns. Issues with sensory processing can be addressed at any age, it's never too late to live a more comfortable, fulfilling, and enjoyable life.
For more information about sensory processing statistics, please visit: