At The Blue Coat School, we pride ourselves on celebrating the uniqueness of each child. As part of our ongoing commitment to understanding and supporting our pupils, this week we hosted a BCS Parent Inclusion Forum for Neurodiversity Celebration Week focused on demystifying sensory processing differences. Led by experienced Occupational Therapists, Ed Howard and Conor McDonagh, the event aimed to give insight and practical advice on this often misunderstood condition.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing disorder is an umbrella term that encompasses a number of disorders including sensory modulation disorder or problems with self-regulation. It usually looks like an over or under-reaction to a sensory response. For example, an over-sensitivity to a light touch or a loud noise. 

Sensory discrimination disorder or problems processing qualities of sensory inputs, postural and ocular disorders, difficulties with body control, or control of eye movement and praxis disorder difficulties with planning actions all fall under the umbrella of sensory processing disorder.

Why is Sensory Processing Important? 

The ability to regulate and organise behavioural reactions to sensory input in a way that allows us to function in our daily lives and complete needed tasks. For example, if a child is working quietly in a classroom and suddenly a lawn mower turns on outside. Typically, our brains should filter out irrelevant stimuli to focus on the task at hand.


Which Sensory Systems Can Be Impacted?

In addition to the commonly known senses of touch, small, taste, vision and hearing, we also have three other senses. 

The vestibular sense which is responsible for the sense of movement. The vestibular system is responsible for our balance but it is also the unifying system in our brain that coordinates all the information received from our other senses, particularly vision. 

Secondly, proprioception which is responsible for identifying where the body is in space. There are tiny receptors in our muscles and joints that give us feedback about how our body moves. Proprioceptive information gives input to our muscles and joints for them to recognise the need to contract and activate for action. This is important for our ability to judge positioning of joints, force needed for action. If a child lacks proprioception they may misjudge how much force to use, for example, when using a pencil to write. 

Finally, interoception which is our internal body sense. Interoception is a sense that allows us to notice internal body signals like a growling stomach, racing heart, tense muscles or full bladder. Our brain uses these body signals as cues to our emotions. Daily mindfulness activities which dedicate time to paying attention to body signals are a very productive way to improve interoception. 

When our bodies process sensory information appropriately, we are able to find ways to self regulate, which allows us to stay organised during structured and unstructured tasks. We are also able to adapt to changes in our routine, attend to complete a task and monitor and adapt our behaviour within the context of a situation or environment effectively.

Recognising Sensory Processing Differences

One specific type of sensory processing disorder is Sensory Modulation Disorder. Children who have difficulty with sensory modulation may avoid textures of clothing or have a preference for a specific texture of clothing, such as soft fabrics. They may avoid contact with others preferring to be at the end of the line school or avoid playing activities that involve touching others. They may have excessive reactions to light touch or show signs of gravitational insecurity, which is an emotional fear reaction to moving their head out of the vertical position. Often these children will also not like having their hair or nails cut or their face washed. 

Praxis is another sensory processing disorder. This is the ability of the brain to generate ideas for action, organise and sequence motor components of actions and recognise feedback from others. Therefore, children with Praxis dysfunction may struggle making choices, but the ability to move their body around objects and other people is also impacted. Transitioning from one activity to the next or tolerating changes within their routine may be difficult. Playing independently or organising themselves to perform activities such as getting on and off a swing can be challenging for them as the child is unaware how to move their body to complete a task.

Interventions for Sensory Processing Differences

Interventions for sensory processing differences focus on activities which enhance sensation and promote the ability to make adaptive responses to the environment. Educating children and their families about their bodies and how to use them more successfully is also very important for regulating responses to sensory stimuli. 

For example, using a slope board at their desk may improve a child’s posture caused by a vestibular sensory dysfunction. Or an adaptive pen may improve a child’s ability to control the pen on paper. 

Intervention work is described as creating a sensory diet. Like food, sensory interventions are needed regularly throughout the day in short bursts to be most effective. Sensory activity should be regularly scheduled, for example, taking a movement break every hour. This can be interspersed with ‘sensory snacks’ such as fidget tools and tactile manipulative items.

A sensory diet will only be effective if the child is engaging in an activity which they enjoy. You wouldn’t eat food you dislike, therefore, a sensory activity should be something which will fully immerse the brain in stimulating or supporting an under- or overreaction to a sensory stimulant for a short period of time before returning focus to their learning. 

Hand writing on paper using a slope board - an adaptive tool for improving sensory processing.
A hand gripping a pencil with an adaptive grip on it.

Sensory Changes Between Childhood and Adulthood

Everyone’s senses and brains develop over time. However, rather than playing a ‘waiting game’, sensory integration therapy can be extremely effective in supporting children to accelerate this change by creating new pathways in the brain, strengthening network connections that are important for learning, changing patterns of behaviour, emotional intelligence and self-regulation. Children’s neuroplasticity is greater than that of older teenagers or adults, therefore, intervention work is especially effective in children from age five. 

Understanding more about sensory processing disorders will empower our community with knowledge and resources to better support those affected. By recognising the nuances of sensory processing and implementing targeted interventions, we can help children navigate their world with greater ease and confidence. 


For further information about Learning Success at The Blue Coat School or to book a meeting with one of our Learning Success team, please visit the Learning Success Parent Portal.