What are Sensory Processing Difficulties?

Some people have difficulties processing this information and it can make it harder to complete everyday tasks. They are still able to take in information (e.g. hearing sounds, or tasting foods) but the way their brain processes sensory information is different to other people. As a result, this can lead to difficulties in processing sensory information to plan/organise body movements. Difficulties processing sensory information can lead to differences in responses to certain stimuli. For example, a sound that one person can cope with may be overly loud or painful to others.

Some people may be hyper-sensitive to certain stimuli (e.g. the smell of coffee) or less aware of these than others. Each sense may be affected in different ways to different levels, and it can vary depending on the context. This is also known as sensory modulation disorder. Click here to find out more about how a person might respond if they are hyper or hypo sensitive to each sense.

Other people may find it more difficult to distinguish between different stimuli, meaning that they may register two different stimuli (e.g. different tastes) as the same. Difficulties discriminating between different stimuli can affect people in different ways depending on which senses are affected.

SenseImpact
Touch May find it difficult to identify the difference between hot/cold or pushing/pulling
Proprioception May find it difficult to coordinate movements for activities such as using a pencil or riding a bicycle
Vestibular May become confused when changing direction or when positioning both feet on the ground
SightMay misinterpret people’s facial expressions or find it more difficult to judge how how far away different items are
HearingMay find it difficult to pay attention to one sound, especially if there is background noise. Instructions may be harder to follow. May be easily distracted by sounds
SmellMay not be able to identify string smells such as vinegar and lemon.
TasteMay not be able to identify tastes such as spice, salt, sweetness

Difficulties with sensory processing can also affect motor movements such as throwing and catching a ball or tying shoelaces. It is thought approximately 1 in 20 people have sensory processing difficulties, and it is more common in people with ADHD, Autism and Fragile X Syndrome (Ben-Sasson et al, 2009). 

Someone who knows first-hand what daily life is like with sensory processing difficulties is Emily, a member of our project team. She has Sensory Processing Disorder and is Autistic.

‘Sensory processing issues are a constant thing for me – my senses are ridiculously heightened at all times and totally out of my control. My mood can change so quickly if I become overwhelmed by something (e.g. loud noises, bright lights, strong scents, unexpected touch) as I cannot filter the information coming into my brain, and I cannot regulate my emotions or understand and label my own feelings. This means day-to-day it can be quite tiring being out in the world, and as a result, I’ve become very good at masking (hiding my true thoughts/feelings), and I can only really drop that mask when I am in a safe environment like my home. Both personally, and as a team, I think we feel that it’s very important to create awareness of sensory processing difficulties as they are a key part of what makes the world quite a disabling and uninviting place for autistic people.’

Emily, @21andsensory

Sensory processing difficulties are part of what can make the world disabling for autistic people. Support often focuses on interventions for an individual rather than the interaction between them and their environment.

Unlike the medical model, the social model of disability sees restrictions or challenges in the lives of autistic people as a problem of society rather than the individual. By removing these barriers we can help to create equality for everyone, offering people increased independence and control.

Our aim is to help the public learn more about sensory processing disorders to encourage businesses to think about how their spaces could be changed to support all people who use them. 

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