top of page

Understanding Sensory Processing in Children: The Role of Occupational Therapy

Sensory Processing Issues (SPI) refer to a condition in which the brain has difficulty processing and responding to information received through the senses. This can manifest in various ways, such as being overly sensitive to certain stimuli

SPI stands for sensory processing issues, a condition in which the brain struggles to process and react to information that is received through the senses. Being overly sensitive to certain stimuli, such as loud noises or bright lights, or failing to respond appropriately to stimuli are just a few examples of how this might appear (e.g. not noticing when something is too hot or cold). The process by which a person's brain processes sensory data, interprets it, and makes the appropriate decisions is known as sensory regulation. Sensory regulation issues in children with SPD can make it difficult for them to engage in daily activities like play, self-care, and learning.

Types of Sensory Processing Issues

Sensory modulation disorder, sensory discrimination disorder, and sensory-based motor disorder are three different types of SPI. An issue with controlling responses to sensory input, such as being easily overwhelmed by loud noises or bright lights, is referred to as sensory modulation disorder. Problems differentiating between different sensations, such as the inability to recognize objects by touch, are referred to as sensory discrimination disorder. The term "sensory-based motor disorder" describes problems with movement and coordination brought on by problems processing sensory data.

Impact of Sensory Processing Issues on Daily Life

The impact of SPI on a child's capacity for daily living can be profound. For instance, a child who has trouble coordinating their movements may find it difficult to participate in physical activities, or a child who is sensitive to loud noises may find it difficult in a classroom setting. Children with SPD may struggle with self-care, play, and learning, according to Ayres (1972). These challenges may cause frustration, worry, and behavioural issues.

Treatment Options and the Role of Occupational Therapy

Children with SPI have a range of treatment options at their disposal. One of the most popular methods is occupational therapy (OT), which can assist kids in developing their capacity to process and react to sensory data. OT may involve activities like using sensory toys, engaging in physical activity, and practising daily living skills (such as dressing and eating). Miller, Coll, and Schoen (2007) claim that occupational therapy is an effective way to increase children's capacity for attention, engagement, and participation in daily life.

sensory integration therapy effectively improves children's ability to attend to and engage in activities and participate in everyday life.

The theory behind sensory integration therapy, which is another SPI treatment option, is that the brain can be retrained to process sensory information more efficiently. Swinging, jumping, and other motions that produce a range of sensory experiences may be a part of this therapy. Parham & Mailloux (2010) found that sensory integration therapy significantly increases children's capacity to attend to, participate in, and engage in activities.

A Detailed Look at Sensory Regulation

The process by which a person's brain organizes and interprets sensory data and makes the appropriate responses is known as sensory regulation or self-regulation. The person is capable of filtering, attending, responding, and adapting to the demands of the environment. This entails eliminating unimportant information, concentrating on important information, and adjusting to changes in the environment.

There are various levels of sensory regulation, such as hypo-regulation, where a person is under-responsive to sensory input and might be described as "spacey" or "disconnected," hyper-regulation, where a person is over-responsive to sensory input and might be described as "sensitive" or "overly reactive," and optimal regulation, where a person can respond appropriately to sensory input.

Children who have trouble controlling their sensory processing also frequently struggle to control their behaviour, emotions, and attention. This may make it difficult to engage in routine activities like play, learning, and self-care.

The Zones of Regulation program is a curriculum-based program that was created to teach children how to recognize and regulate their own emotions and behaviours.

It is crucial to remember that sensory regulation is a trait that can be improved with various therapeutic approaches and environmental modifications. As was already mentioned, occupational therapy is one of the most popular methods for dealing with sensory regulation issues and can aid kids in developing their capacity to process and react to sensory information.

Children can benefit from a variety of strategies or programs that occupational therapists can use to assist in the development of their sensory regulation abilities. Let's look at a couple of them.

The Zones of Regulation Program

In order to teach kids how to identify and control their own emotions and behaviours, the Zones of Regulation program was developed. The framework of Zones of Regulation serves as the program's foundation. It teaches kids how to recognize when they are in various emotional states and offers tips on how to get out of those states and into more controlled ones. Children with emotional regulation issues, such as those caused by developmental disorders like autism or ADHD, are the target audience for the program.

The Zones of Regulation program typically includes:

  • Lessons on the four zones (red, yellow, green, blue) and what emotions and behaviours are associated with each zone.

  • Activities and exercises to help children learn how to identify their own emotions and behaviours and understand how they relate to different zones.

  • Strategies and tools can help children regulate their emotions and behaviours, such as deep breathing, counting to ten, or using positive self-talk.

  • Social stories and role-playing activities help children practice appropriate behaviours in different situations.

Occupational therapists, school counsellors, or special education teachers frequently deliver the program. It can be used alone but is typically done in a group setting. Along with other interventions like speech therapy or applied behaviour analysis, the program can also be used.

The Zones of Regulation program is not a one-size-fits-all intervention, so it might not be suitable for all kids, it is important to remember. To ascertain whether the program is suitable for a child and will successfully meet the child's unique needs, a professional assessment by an occupational therapist or another healthcare provider with training in emotional regulation is required.

The Importance of Parent and Caregiver Support

Additionally, parents and other adults must comprehend and assist children with SPI. This may entail making modifications at home and at school, such as setting aside a quiet area for a youngster who is sensitive to noise or giving a youngster extra assistance when participating in physical activities. Smith, Schoen, and Miller (2011) assert that parental support is essential for SPD children's treatment to be successful.

In conclusion, Sensory Processing Issues (SPI) is a condition in which the brain struggles to process and react to information obtained through the senses, resulting in challenges with daily activities. Children with SPI may benefit from therapies like occupational and sensory integration therapy. Additionally, it is crucial for parents and other adults to comprehend and assist children with SPI.


Ayres, A. J. (1972). Sensory integration and learning disorders. Western Psychological Services.

Miller, L. J., Coll, J. R., & Schoen, S. A. (2007). Handbook of sensory integration.

Parham, L. D., & Mailloux, Z. (2010). Sensory integration: theory and practice. F.A. Davis.

Smith, R. O., Schoen, S. A., & Miller, L. J. (2011). Sensory processing in children with autism: a review of research. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 31(1), 48-69.


bottom of page