Sensory processing and sensory circuits for children

Date: 13th July 2014

Posted on: 13-07-2014

Independent Speech and Language therapist, and ASLTIP member, Jacqui Wright, has over 22 years experience in South Africa, the U.S.A. and the UK. She is author of ‘Cracking the Literacy Puzzle’, RCSLT Bulletin, March 2006. Here, Jacqui from Childhood Communication Consultancy, based in Carlton, discusses Sensory processing and Sensory circuits for children.


Childhood Communication Consultancy (CCC) specialises in assessing and treating children ages 0-19 years old with speech, language, listening, literacy, learning and social communication difficulties. The aim of the assessment is to discover where the breakdown is occurring, to what extent: mild-moderate-severe, to treat this and also advise on strategies to support the child. We have reviewed the processes that occur for effective communication and various disorders in the processing model:


There is an overlap of difficulties between the disorders: ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), APD (auditory processing disorder), language and semantic disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, pragmatic language disorder (how language is used in context), autistism spectrum disorders (ASD) and Asperger’s syndrome. All these disorders can have sensory processing disorders (SPD)/sensory integration dysfunction but it is commonly linked with ADHD, semantic pragmatic language disorders, APD (& dyslexia), dyspraxia , ASD and Asperger’s syndrome.


What is Sensory processing and Sensory integration?

Sensory integration (SI) is the coming together of all the sensory processes from the body (hearing, sight, touch, smell, taste, body position and movement, balance, gravity, and internal body workings) in the brain in an integrated way in order to make sense of the world. This enables the child to act appropriately with motor movements and his/her behaviour in a purposeful way. Whether riding a bike, biting into a bagel, or reading a book, successful completion of these tasks requires sensory integration.


Sensory processing disorder (SPD) or as it was formerly known: sensory integration dysfunction, exists when sensory processes or signals don’t get organised into appropriate responses. The child receives confused and imprecise information about their body and the world around them. This results in the brain being unable to direct the behaviour effectively. Dr Jean Ayres, Occupational therapist and neuroscientist, described this as a neurological ‘traffic jam’ in the brain stem that prevents particular parts of the brain receiving the signals to interpret the sensory information correctly. Children with SPD will find it difficult to process and act on their sensory information making functional daily activities a challenge. These difficulties can be mild to severe. One in six children experience sensory symptoms that are significant to disrupt their daily lives. They may present with:

  • Motor clumsiness

  • Behavioural problems

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • School Failure


The exact cause of SPD is unknown but research indicates there are some genetic and environmental factors that are linked.


What does Sensory processing disorder look like?

  • One sense may be affected i.e. auditory or visual or movement, or multiple senses may be affected

  • A child can be over-responsive i.e. a clothing label is unbearably itchy, or under-responsive i.e. does not feel pain in the usual way, to stimuli or a combination of both

  • If motor skills are affected, the child looks like a ‘floppy baby’ and later a ‘clumsy’child

  • A child may be a sensory seeker i.e. louder, faster, brighter sensations, or a sensory avoider i.e. quieter, slower, dimmer sensations

  • It produces behaviours that occur with frequency, intensity and duration that are not in line with a child’s chronological age or developmental level

  • It is unique to each child

  • It can be variable

  • A child may: have poor concentration; be ‘shut down’; have poor regulation of emotions i.e. explode and/or cry; be fussy and controlling; be highly anxious; tire easily; be a poor or reluctant communicator

  • A child may appear clumsy, uncooperative, belligerent, disruptive or out of control.


An SPD child is at risk for emotional, social and educational problems due to motor difficulties, social communication difficulties, low self–esteem, anxiety, depression and aggression. SPD can persist into adulthood and affect an individual’s ability to succeed in marriage, work and social environments.


How is Sensory processing disorder treated?

Intervention and management for SPD will depend on the child’s particular level of need. Many of these children have normal or above average intelligence. Their brains are simply wired differently. They need to be taught in ways that they process information and to do sports or activities that challenge and develop their sensory processing needs.


A child with suspected SPD will require an initial assessment by a Sensory integration (SI) trained therapist, usually an Occupational therapist (OT). This can be done at a Joint Clinic with a trained SLT and OT. Following the assessment, strategies for home and school will be recommended by the SI OT, and also incorporated into Speech and language therapy sessions if required. This can take the form of a Sensory circuit in any of these environments. The child may need a course of individual SI therapy sessions with the OT. The aim of the treatment and strategies is to develop appropriate responses to sensation in an active, meaningful and fun way so that the child can behave in a more functional manner. This will generalise across home, school and social settings. A Sensory circuit is a form of SI treatment that involves: Alerting, Organising and Calming the child or group of children. It takes up to 15 minutes and can be done before school and after lunch time in school. It is effective in helping children with their sensory motor development and to be attentive learners in the classroom. Often, a listening programme will be recommended with the SI treatment.


Jacqui Wright


Disclaimer: The above blog is written by an ASLTIP member. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of ASLTIP. Publication does not imply endorsement. The blog is not intended to be clinical advice for individual clients.


Interested in becoming a member?

ASLTIP’s membership has been growing rapidly since 1989. We are a support organisation run by our members. The executive board is always grateful for new members and new ideas.

Apply for a membership
shape wrap