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  • Cara Clark

What is Occupational Therapy and Sensory Processing Dysfunction?

Updated: Aug 13, 2021



Occupational therapy is a medical profession where the focus is to help people gain functionality and independence for their lives while enhancing the quality of life. The word occupational is in reference to one’s role in life, not just a job. For instance, I’m an occupational therapist as my line of work, but the other roles or jobs I have in life include being a wife, a dog mom, a sister, a daughter, an aunt, a friend, a caregiver, and the list goes on. If I endured something that impacted how I was able to perform in those roles (think injured, mental health, surgery, etc), I would seek out an OT to help me gain my independence back. Play is the primary job of a child in addition to their other roles. I want to note that sensory integration is NOT just for kids. We, at Flourishing Lives, treat clients from birth on up. We see plenty of teens and adults because they are impacted as well.

Within the field of occupational therapy (OT) there are specialties, sensory integration therapy is one of those specialties and works with people experience sensory processing dysfunction (SPD) and other diagnoses that have SPD as a co-morbidity. This means that not all OTs are trained in this area and can implement this form of treatment. These specially trained therapists help to stabilize and normalize the senses so that the person in treatment can go through life easier.





So, what exactly is sensory processing dysfunction (SPD), you ask? Well let me start from the beginning… Sensory is in relation to the body. You probably learned about the 5 senses when you were in elementary school:

  1. touch (tactile)

  2. taste

  3. smell (olfactory)

  4. see (vision)

  5. hear (auditory)

I’m here to tell you that there are actually 8 senses! That’s right, I said 8. There are three more:

  1. vestibular

  2. proprioception

  3. interoception

Vestibular is the registration of movement through space. Proprioception is knowing where your body is in space and in relation to your environment while interoception is recognizing what your body is feeling internally (feeling hungry, having to go to the bathroom, etc.). I’ll go more in depth on the senses in future posts. For now, let’s get back to what SPD is. As I mentioned, sensory is in relation to the body and our body needs sensory information in order for our brains to function. When we have any of those 8 senses have too much or too little for the brain to process, this results in being out of whack or not functioning normally. This is called sensory processing dysfunction and it makes going through life difficult. Some people are able to compensate and go through life with only minimal difficulty. However, there are people where these senses are impacting them so much that they can’t function in life. Seeking out sensory integration therapy is a way to help those experiencing SPD regain their quality of life.



What does SPD look like? Well, it can look like a lot of things but here is one example: picture yourself trying to read a book. Now picture yourself reading that book in a department store that is crowded, while someone is testing a blender, and another is testing a vacuum. A woman walks by with a coffee and accidentally spills on you, taking you by surprise, and causing you to fall back into a display. Are you able to still concentrate on reading your book? No? I’m not surprised. When a person with sensory processing dysfunction feels dysregulated, their body feels a lot like that scenario. They feel out of control. That out of control can look like meltdowns, may appear to be defiant, or like they just won’t follow directions. This may look like a picky eater or someone who is particular with their clothing. It can look like a “couch potato” or someone that appears to be “clumsy”. Someone that doesn’t like showers or having their hair brushed/cut also fall within this realm.

There is another aspect within the sensory realm that sensory integration addresses and that is praxis.

Praxis is the ability to motor plan or know how to complete/perform a task, whether it be simple or complex.

Here is another scenario for you: you are told to go brush your teeth, something you do every day. But this has been a difficult morning as you didn’t sleep last night because you were worried about an upcoming project. The dogs are barking and the house is a mess. What were you supposed to do again? Someone repeats “please go brush your teeth”. Oh yeah! You are able to walk to the bathroom but don’t know what to do next. The person telling you to brush your teeth comes in and gives you step by step instructions on what to do. This has turned the, seemingly, one step task of “go brush your teeth” into a multiple step task of 1) go to the bathroom 2) grab the toothbrush 3) grab the toothpaste 4) turn on the water 5) wet the brush 6) put the brush in your mouth and 7) begin brushing your teeth. This can result in frustration on both parties involved, the one giving instruction and the one performing the task. It may seem like the one performing the task is being defiant and difficult on purpose. When a person that struggles with motor planning is dysregulated, these simple tasks turn into complex tasks. In addition to appearing to be defiant, they may have poor adaptability such as when playing with others, have a hard time transitioning from something preferred to something non-preferred, or even unable to handle unexpected changes to their routine.

Sensory processing dysfunction can be hard to recognize due to not being well known and often gets mistaken as being “just a behavior”. Keep in mind that no one wants to misbehave or have a difficult time in life, there are always reasons behind the actions that are being exhibited. Occupational therapists work one on one with their client to implement sensory integration therapy to help those that are having a difficult time going through life due to their senses being out of sorts. They work on the underlying areas that are causing the behaviors in order to reduce them. This helps them to be able to grow and thrive.

If you have any questions or comments, please reach out because we want to hear from you! In the meantime, go forth and flourish!



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