#46 - What is Sensory Processing & Why Is It Important?Oct 29, 2023
Welcome to episode #46 of the Food Explorers Podcast & your introduction to sensory processing & why it’s important in our day-to-day lives. If you’ve been here a while, you know that we’ve talked about sensory processing in-depth, but something we really haven’t discussed is why sensory processing is really so important.
We’ve also had a lot of new friends join our community recently, and sensory processing is newer to many of you. For example, your doctor or speech therapist mentioned that they are noticing some sensory red flags. Or maybe you were sent to occupational therapy, and they mentioned sensory processing in the evaluation. Or, perhaps you listened to my last podcast episode - What are Signs of Sensory Issues, and now you’re wondering if it may apply to you, your client, or your child.
While you sat there and nodded your head, it may be a really new concept to you, or one you only know a bit about, and would love to understand further.
So, let’s start from the beginning.
What is Sensory Processing?
Because we’ve covered this question in depth in other episodes (for example check out episodes 14-17), I’m going to be brief here.
Sensory processing is the way that our body takes in, interprets and responds to sensory input from our 8 senses - like what we see, hear, or smell. For example, our eyes & nose sees & smell cookies. They send the message to our brain that there are cookies in front of us (yay)! Our brain interprets the cookies as exciting, and safe to eat. Then the brain sends the message to our muscles to eat those yummy cookies.
Did you catch that I said 8 senses? Yup, we actually have 8, not 5 senses. We have 3 hidden senses that are rarely talked about - our proprioceptive sense, vestibular sense, and interoceptive sense. We’re going to talk about these a little bit more next month on the podcast.
So sensory processing is the way our body interprets and responds to the input from these 8 senses.
But why is that important?
To put it simply, I think sensory processing is so important because it’s going on in the background of our lives every single second of every single day to make us successful. When everything is working as it should, and our sensory needs are a match for the task we’re trying to accomplish - we don’t even notice that they are there - so often, it doesn’t seem as important.
When our senses function smoothly, they allow us to take in sights, evaluate the smells in the environment for toxins and pleasant smells, sit and stand up without falling down, learn new movements, listen and respond to people talking to us, brush our teeth & hair, and so so much more. Honestly I can go on forever about everything the senses empowers us to do. But again, we don’t really notice them when everything is going well.
For example, when we happily eat a hamburger, we’re not thinking about the fact that our senses are evaluating the smell, look, taste, and more to determine if that burger is safe and pleasing for us to eat. We just eat.
Rather, the importance of the senses seems to come in when there is a mismatch between the needs of our body and the task at hand. So, when things aren’t functioning as smoothly as we would hope. For example, when our sense of smell makes us totally nauseous as soon as we see the burger, and we can’t eat it. Or when a child has a hard time eating a variety of foods, because their senses are sending warning signs that new foods aren’t safe to eat.
Or when a person is having a hard time showering and staying clean because the feeling of water on their skin is painful.
Then…the sensory system seems to become really important, really fast. But even when there’s not an issue, sensory processing is an important part of our days, just one we don’t have to really think about.
I also find that the sensory system holds a lot of answers to your mysterious questions.
- Why can’t my child stop moving?
- How come the texture of that food bothers me so much?
- I don’t understand why my child is constantly leaning on me and needs to be on top of me…
And that brings me to another crucial component that we need to talk about:
Why is it important for YOU to understand the sensory system?
Well, knowledge and education is power. When you understand how the sensory system works, you learn a lot about yours, your child’s, or your client’s body. And then you can use that information to your benefit.
For example, let’s go back to that burger example. When you don’t understand the sensory system, you may just get frustrated that your child won’t eat that burger. You need them to get nutrition, and so you try to just force them to do it…which likely leads to mealtime battles.
When you understand the sensory system, you can look at the situation as a whole. You can determine that your child has specific sensory preferences and needs. For example, perhaps their visual sense gets overwhelmed by lumpy food, or they have a hard time chewing foods because their proprioceptive sense is under-responsive.
Then, you can look at the food and realize that visually a burger can be really overwhelming. It’s very large and very lumpy. You can also see that burgers require a lot of chewing and need good strength, jaw movement, and endurance to eat.
From there, you realize that the demands of the burger are a mismatch for the sensory needs of your child. But does this mean that you just give up? No way!
If you know me, you know that I never really discount anything as just giving up. As humans, we’re always looking to improve and learn new skills.
But when you understand sensory processing, you may better realize that you can make shifts to help the food and your child be a better match.
For example, perhaps you introduce smaller portions of the food, as to not overwhelm the visual system. Or instead of really big, lumpy burgers, you work on introducing very thin, consistent textured burgers in order to make them more successful.
In general, we’re looking at 3 big categories when it comes to sensory processing:
- The sensory preferences of the person
- The sensory demands of the task
- The sensory aspects of the environment
These 3 sensory components interact, and when they’re a match, we’re able to function well. When they’re not a match, that is where a person struggles.
So that’s why it’s so important to understand sensory processing. You need to be able to evaluate these 3 sensory components and figure out where the mismatch is, and where you can make changes to make it the right fit.
And this doesn’t just apply to eating. It applies to school, home, and even community outings.
And you know I would absolutely love to help you understand the ins-and-outs of sensory processing.
The first step - understanding the steps of sensory processing, and the different kinds of sensory difficulties a person may experience. If you’ve heard of sensory sensitivity, seekers, avoidance, these are all types of difficulties a person may be experiencing. And beginning to understand the trends that you, your child, or your client experience gives you so much valuable information about how they perceive the world from a sensory standpoint, and what is going on around them.
A couple weeks ago I quietly dropped a new mini-training - Understanding Sensory Challenges that teaches you all of this! But…come next week, I’ll be sharing a pre-black friday discount!
It’s only going to be up for one week, so make sure you come back here Sunday, November 5 to get your discount code.
Everyone I’ve spoken to who has taken this training has absolutely loved it so far, and I’ve heard so many times that it just totally changed their entire viewpoint on the sensory system, and how they interact with themselves, their child, or their client.
Again, knowledge really is power, and the more we can know about the brain and the body, the better we can support it.
I know it’s really tempting to think that you yourself don’t need to understand this information. But you’re the one who spends the MOST time with yourself or your child. Sensory challenges don’t only occur at school or at therapy, they happen at home. And learning this information can help make the day less chaotic and more fun for both you and or your child.
And if you’re a rehab professional, hi, you definitely need to understand this information in order to provide the best care possible to your sensational clients. I remember being a new therapist, and no one taught me this information. I went out and did research on my own. And my understanding of my clients, viewpoint, and ability to support them skyrocketed when I did.
So I can’t wait to see you back here next week, where I’m going to share our pre-black Friday discount code! See you then!
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