An intro to Sensory Processing Difficulties

What are sensory processing difficulties and what do they have to do with neurodiversity? Read on to find out more

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Apr 21, 2021

Tiimo member

April 21, 2021
Lorraine Scott Young
Brand Manager at Chewigem

"Hello! I am Lorraine from Chewigem and today I’m going to give you an overview of sensory processing and sensory processing difficulties. I myself am an autistic adult with sensory processing difficulties and I have two autistic children who also have sensory difficulties. I have also been helping and supporting the Chewigem community with their senses for 10 years!"

What Are Sensory Processing Difficulties?

Sensory processing difficulties are when the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes through the senses. Messages between the body and brain can get jumbled up, meaning that our responses are different from people without these processing difficulties and we may respond in ways that are perceived as inappropriate.

An example of this for me is if someone touches me and I don’t expect it, I will scream as though I am in pain (because to me it is painful), but to anyone without hypersensitivity this seems like an over dramatic and inappropriate response. 1 in 20 people have sensory processing difficulties and for 1 in 6 of those, it will affect their daily life. Many people with sensory processing difficulties or differences will be diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Who Might Have Sensory Processing Difficulties?

People with developmental or neurological differences may have sensory processing difficulties. Whilst it is common for autistic people to have sensory issues, not all autistic people will have issues with their senses and not all people who do will be autistic. Sensory Processing Difficulties are often seen alongside ADHD, Dyspraxia, Tourette’s, Anxiety, Attachment Disorder, Global Developmental Delay, Separation Anxiety and PTSD. Neurodivergent people are more likely to have sensory difficulties. But anyone, neurodivergent and neurotypical people alike, can have difficulties with their sensory system.

What Senses Are We Talking About?

Would you be shocked if I told you we have 8 main senses? Honestly, we do! But if you don’t have any challenges with your senses you might not know about some of them.

The 5 we learn as children are Sight, Sound, Touch, Taste and Smell. These are our external senses.

We additionally have 3 internal senses. There is Proprioception, which is sometimes referred to as our 6th sense and is the sense of spatial awareness. It helps us know where our limbs are in space.

Then we have Vestibular, which is our balance and is very closely related to Proprioception. Our 8th sense is Interoception and this is knowing what is going on inside our body.

If you’re a fan of QI you may know that there are up to 21 different senses but lots of those branch off from the main 8 I am talking about. See the QI clip here.

Oversensitive and Under-Sensitive

People who struggle with sensory processing difficulties may be oversensitive (also known as hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (known as hyposensitive). Many people can be a mixture of both hypersensitive and hyposensitive and this can change depending on the environment, lack of sleep, illness, stress and anxiety.

People who are hypersensitive are known as avoiders. Avoiders are very sensitive to sensory input and tend to avoid sensory stimuli, so you may notice them covering their ears or hiding away from busy and noisy places. They may have a restricted diet and gag at smells.

People who are hyposensitive are known as seekers. Seekers are under-sensitive to sensory input and therefore seek extra sensory stimuli. You may notice they enjoy rough play, and strong-smelling and tasting foods. I am both a seeker and an avoider as are my children, and our sensory needs change regularly.



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What Are The Common Signs Of Sensory Processing Differences?

There are lots of signs that someone has differences or difficulties in their sensory processing. Some are more obvious than others, and you may not always associate these signs with sensory processing. It may take time to put things together and discover that you have sensory processing differences. Here are some of the more obvious things you may see from someone with sensory processing difficulties:

  • Covers ears
  • Seeks out hugs and cuddles
  • Doesn’t understand personal space
  • Has a limited diet
  • Gags at smells
  • Doesn’t like to be touched
  • Often feels sick
  • Frequent headaches
  • Chews clothes and toys
  • Might wear clothing inappropriate to the season

But this doesn’t always mean that someone with sensory processing difficulties will always show these signs. Take my aversion to touch, having been told that I am over reacting and a drama queen I will often hide my responses to this. This is called masking.

Other signs of sensory processing difficulties that might not be as obvious are:

  • Coordination difficulties
  • Often bumps into things
  • Has little or no spacial awareness
  • Struggles to engage in conversation and/or play
  • Don’t know if they are hungry or thirsty
  • May not know when they need to go to the toilet
  • Struggles to regulate temperature
  • Experiences pain differently to others

You may notice someone with sensory processing difficulties can under- or over-respond to the sensory information around them. They may also struggle with changes to their routine and environment.

Everyone interprets their sensory messages differently so sensory processing difficulties can look very different from one person to the next.

Conclusion

That’s a brief overview of what sensory difficulties are, who may have sensory difficulties and some of the signs of these difficulties. If you think you or your child may have sensory processing difficulties then it’s important to fully understand your senses and find helpful strategies to put into place. For more help and information please check out our content hub, send us an email hello@chewigem.co.uk or get in touch on Facebook.

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