What are Sensory Processing Difficulties?

We process sensory information all the time to help us understand the world around us. There are multiple sensory systems:

  • Hearing
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Proprioception (a sense of where our body is in space and how different parts are moving)
  • Vestibular (our sense of balance and movement)
  • Interoception (internal feelings created by the body such as messages about how fast your heart is beating or if you need the toilet)

Some people have difficulties processing this information and it can make it harder to complete everyday tasks. 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.

It is thought that 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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