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Sensory Processing and Occupational Therapy

I am a big fan of Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, a science commentator, who regularly co-hosts a science talk-back show on youth radio station, Triple J. I often listen to the show when I am driving around town between clients and became excited when I finally knew the answer to a listener’s question! The question came from a mum who has a child on the autism spectrum. Her child had been prescribed a “sensory diet” by an occupational therapist to help her child “regulate their emotions” and focus on tasks. She wanted to know, what is sensory processing, and how does sensory input impact on function?

What is Sensory Processing? We all know about the 5 main senses – touch, smell, vision, taste, and hearing, but what most of us don’t know is there are actually lots of different senses like pain, temperature, movement (vestibular), and body-awareness (proprioception). We are constantly interacting with the world through our senses and the type of sensory input we receive can have a significant effect on our nervous system (think fight or flight). Some sensory input can have a calming effect on us (soft music, a scented candle, dim lights, a tight hug) and some input can have a
stimulating effect (going for a run, fast tempo music, strong smells, and tastes). Sometimes, we can also become over-stimulated and overwhelmed by our sensory environments which can cause us to feel anxious and like we can’t cope with everyday demands. This is where OT can come in.

I don’t know how many times I have been asked what OT is and have struggled to explain it succinctly and in a way that makes sense to someone who has never heard of OT before. To me, OT is all about function and how well we participate in everyday activities like work, social activities, self-care, and managing our day-to-day responsibilities like shopping, cooking, and cleaning. So basically, everything. If someone is having difficulty doing their grocery shopping because they find it way too anxiety provoking, then maybe going at a quieter time or putting in some earplugs might help, or if someone struggles with paying attention during class or meetings, then stimulating things like a cold drink, crunchy foods, or fidgets might be the way to go. Sensory modulation (using the senses to impact the nervous system) can also be beneficial for people with a mental health issue.

For me, when I am struggling concentrating at work or don’t have the energy to complete that report I am meaning to do, I have a few strategies that help me – putting on noise cancelling headphones to cut out distracting background noise, having a cold glass of water, getting up and doing some stretches, or eating something crunchy like some celery. And when I am feeling overwhelmed, my go to is a couple of push-ups or chin-ups, some deep breaths, and putting on something heavy like a weighted blanket or my dog on my lap.

We all have vastly different sensory needs so working with an OT to identify your unique sensory profile and what sensory strategies work for you can be beneficial in helping you do what you need and want to do.

Holly is a qualified occupational therapist who graduated from Curtin University in 2017. She has worked in both residential and community settings, with a special focus on NDIS participants. With over eight years of experience working with individuals living with disabilities, Holly is passionate about enabling and empowering people to live their best lives. Her special interests include emotional regulation, sensory processing and modulation, autism, intellectual disabilities and mental health, young adults, and hearing loss.

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