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Understanding Sensory Processing

Definition of Sensory Processing: The sensory system takes information from the surrounding environment through touch, smell, sound, vision, taste, movement, and gravity. It processes or interprets these sensations together to make sense of the environment.


We are all aware of the five senses, but there are ‘hidden’ senses that play a big role in how we interact with our environment.


Proprioception: Often called our ‘internal eyes’, proprioception provides us with information about where our body is, how it is connected and what it is doing. The information comes from the act of movement and the messages this sends from our skin receptors and muscles. Information is also detected internally when a person makes a ‘plan’ to move. For example, seeing a cup on the table and planning to pick it up and knowing the right amount of force to use to achieve this.


Vestibular: This sense supplies us with information about balance and about how fast or slow our body is moving or responding to movement. This information comes from the inner ear.


Interoception: It is the conscious awareness of internal bodily states, such as being hungry, or full, or needing to use the toilet.


People are unique and respond to their environment in different ways. Certain behaviours are often linked to the way in which that person is processing their environment, depending on how they respond to the external stimulus.


Children with Autism often have unique sensory profiles. These include the following areas:

  1. Low registration and Sensory Seeking: Often called the hypo, low or under sensitive profiles.

  2. Sensory Avoiding and Sensory Sensitivity: Often called hyper, high or over sensitive profiles.


Below are examples of behaviours caused by sensory seeking and avoiding behaviours. Sourced from https://ilslearningcorner.com/2016-04-proprioceptive-dysfunction-causes-sensory-seeking-and-sensory-avoiding-behavior/ .

Sensory Seeking Behaviours

Sensory Avoiding Behaviours

  • Often plays too rough, sometimes hurting self or others

  • Prefers to wear tight clothes

  • Under registering of touch or pain

  • Seeks extremes in play (i.e., climbing too high)

  • Enjoys loud noises

  • Touches everyone and everything often with extreme pressure

  • Poor personal space

  • Chews on clothing, pencils, toys, etc.

  • Walks loudly, stomps and jumps at inappropriate times

Cautious in play with others, may seek corner and avoid contact

  • Dislikes tight clothes

  • Extremely sensitive to touch, sometimes responds by withdrawing

  • Avoids vestibular/proprioceptive input such as swinging and climbing

  • Has auditory defensiveness, likes quiet surroundings

  • Clingy to parents or other close loved ones

  • Sometimes appears lazy or lethargic

  • Seems uncoordinated

  • Has difficulty with stairs


Sensory Processing concerns are diagnosed and supported by an Occupational Therapist who will assess the person and design a program or ‘sensory diet’ to help them cope with daily sensory input. This includes support for the parents and teachers at school to incorporate strategies at home and in class to cater to the child’s specific sensory needs. It is very important to remember that if you meet the need or function of the behaviour, you address the actual behaviour.


Providing sensory Supports

It is important to offer specific sensory supports and to embed sensory input into the environment when a child requires it. Examples of sensory supports may be things like headphones, a fidget toy, special air cushion for seating and movement breaks such as taking a walk to get a drink or doing a wall push up. It is, however, important to consult an occupational therapist about your own child’s specific sensory needs.


Behavioural Strategies and Supports

Behavioural Strategies can also assist with sensory processing. Examples are things like the use of a graded exposure to dealing with sensory experiences. With gradual exposure to a particular sensory experience, the student may get used to it. Also, using techniques such as reward charts, or other reinforcement, can assist these students to participate in specific sensory experiences that may be a little distressing.  It is important to allow the choice and allow them to withdraw from the sensory input when they need to. Teachers often use social stories to describe specific scenarios for the student to help them prepare for an event and the suitable tools, such as a fidget toy or breathing exercises, to cope in the situation. This means teaching the students self-regulation skills and this is very important to help them to learn to cope with their own sensory needs within the environment.


The Occupational Therapist would set up specific coping mechanisms for the student to assist them to regulate themselves. Examples of this are doing Dragon Breathing, wall push ups, chair push ups, using a sensory/calm box, a weighted toy or blanket, etc. Again, these skills would be developed specifically for the unique needs of the child.


Mrs Jenni de Villiers

Head of Educational Support

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