How Children's Sensory Systems Impact Participation in Daily Activities

An Overview of the Seven Senses and Sensory Integration

The gustatory and tactile systems contribute to this young girl's enjoyment of her meal. Photographer/Getty Images

Here is some information to learn how children's sensory systems impact participation in daily activities. Pediatric Occupational Therapy professionals are trained to understand how children’s sensory systems impact their ability to participate in daily routines and activities, known as “occupations”. Some examples might include daily activities such as mealtime, hygiene, dressing, playing, socializing, learning or even sleeping.

Did you know we have more senses than the “classic five” senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching? These five senses tell us about what types of sensations are coming from outside the body. But what about sensations that come from within the body? 

There are two more “hidden” senses that also contribute significantly to our ability to participate in daily life. These include our sense of balance and motion (the “vestibular” system) and our sense of body awareness (the “proprioceptive” system).

Together, all seven of these senses contribute to a child’s ability to successfully participate in daily occupations. They provide us information about how our body is moving and what is going on in the world around us.

When we take in sensory information from within our bodies and from our environment, our central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) takes on the job of quickly organizing all this sensory input in the brain.

The brain can then send signals to the appropriate parts of the body in order to activate appropriate motor, behavioral, or emotional responses (known as an “adaptive response”). In a sense, our brain acts like a traffic director, organizing sensations for practical use. This is known as “sensory integration” or “sensory processing”.

In individuals with intact sensory integration, this process occurs automatically, unconsciously, and nearly instantaneously. Being able to process sensations effectively and then produce efficient motor or behavioral responses (known as an “adaptive response”) enables children to be in control and feel a sense of confidence. 

Now that you’ve been introduced to the concept of sensory integration, let’s take a look at how each sensory system operates and how it contributes to success in a child’s daily life.

1. The Vestibular System 

This system is responsible for our sense of balance and motion, and is housed in our middle ear. Our vestibular system is activated whenever our head changes position, and is also continuously activated by the downward force of gravity (these gravity receptors are also activated by bone vibration, such as when using a vibrating toothbrush or listening to music with heavy bass). Our vestibular sense is like a “you are here” marker and gives us a sense of where we are in three-dimensional space.

Examples of activities that involve vestibular input include jumping, spinning, rolling, swinging, tipping your head back to wash your hair, and even bending forward to tie your shoes. The vestibular system is a complex, powerful system. Different types of input to the vestibular system can be either calming, alerting, organizing, or disorganizing, depending on the type of movement and how sensitive the child is to motion. The vestibular system “has many interconnections with almost every other part of the brain” , allowing it to interact with several other sensory systems as well as influence other non balance-related factors such as emotional responses, digestive tract responses, and academic learning. Sensory-trained Occupational Therapists know how to identify what type of vestibular input is needed to help a child demonstrate the desired response and improve their ability to participate in functional tasks. Practically speaking, the vestibular system helps children know how fast they are moving, which direction they are moving in, and whether they are off-balance when playing, socializing, learning, or navigating their environment.

2. The Proprioception Systyem

This system is responsible for our sense of body awareness. Our muscles and joints contain receptors that are activated any time they are stretched or compressed (think of an example of hanging on a bar or jumping on a trampoline). Once activated, these receptors send messages to the brain about how our body parts are moving. Proprioception allows us to know where our body parts are in relation to each other (so we don’t have to constantly monitor them with our eyes) and how much force we are using (so we can interact appropriately with our environment). If we had less proprioception, our movements would be “slower, clumsier, and involve more effort”. In addition to helping us move more efficiently, proprioceptive input can also feel calming, organizing, or grounding. Practically speaking, the proprioceptive system allows children to do things like walk, jump, climb, color, cut, write, get dressed, and fasten buttons without having to consciously think about where their body parts are or how much force they need to use in order to accomplish the task at hand.

3. The Tactile System

This system is responsible for our sense of touch. It is detected through receptors in our skin and the inside of our mouth. The tactile system is the largest sensory system and is the first sensory system to develop in utero. It helps us know when we’ve touched something (tactile sensation) and what we’ve touched (tactile discrimination). In addition to sensation and discrimination, the tactile system also gives us information about the difference between “light touch” (like when the cat walks by and grazes your leg with her tail) and “deep touch” (like with a firm handshake or massage). Light touch (including certain textures) can feel alerting or alarming, while deep touch can feel more calming or organizing. This is true of both tactile input to the skin as well as in the mouth (such as when eating foods of different textures). Practically speaking, the tactile system allows children to tell if a piece of pizza is too hot or spicy, tolerate brushing their teeth or hair, select a teddy bear or blanket they feel is the “softest”, or reach into the depths of their backpack to find what they need without looking.

4. The Visual System

This system is responsible for our sense of vision, but it is so much more than just being able to see clearly! Visual perceptual skills allow us to perceive similarities and differences between objects, and focus on what we need to see and disregard what we don’t. Visual motor skills help us take in visual information and then move our hands and body as needed, based on that information. Visual perceptual and visual motor skills often rely on good eye control skills (known as oculomotor skills) in order to focus on and visually track along with what is going on in the visual environment. Practically speaking, the visual system helps children find the pieces needed for completing a puzzle, judge how far they need to throw a ball, find a friend on a busy playground, follow along while reading or completing a worksheet, copy from the board, and write their letters on the lines and with the appropriate size.

5. The Auditory System

This system is responsible for our sense of hearing but, again, it is so much more than just being able to hear! Our auditory system works with our brain to determine what sounds are important and which ones can be “tuned out”. They also have to be able to work together in order to locate where sounds are coming from and what they mean so we can act accordingly. Our auditory system also allows us to make sense of verbal information in our environment. Practically speaking, the auditory system helps children tell if something is too loud, recognize familiar voices, pay attention to and accurately interpret a teacher’s or parent’s verbal instructions, hear whether a car is coming toward them in a grocery store parking lot, and determine where their friend is calling from when in a crowded room.

6. The Olfactory System

This system is responsible for our sense of smell, and it also influences our sense of taste. Smell is a unique sense because its messages are directly processed through a part of our brain associated with emotions and emotional memory, known as the limbic system. Practically speaking, the olfactory system helps children determine whether the cookies are burnt before they even get out of the oven, whether their mom is making their favorite dinner, whether their milk has gone sour before they take a drink, and whether or not they need to put on deodorant or take a shower.

7. The Gustatory System

This system is responsible for our sense of taste. It is responsible for detecting the different types of flavors that come into the mouth and on the tongue. Practically speaking, the gustatory system helps children learn to like food, while also keeping things out of their body that could be harmful. Practically speaking, the gustatory system helps children experience and identify a variety of flavors while developing most favorite (cookies!) and least favorite (broccoli) foods and flavors.

If you have concerns about your child’s sensory processing abilities, and they seem to be impacting his or her ability to participate in certain aspects daily life, please discuss these concerns with your child’s primary care physician to determine whether a referral for an Occupational Therapy evaluation is recommended. Occupational Therapists address children’s sensory challenges so they can more fully participate in daily occupations, including playing, eating, sleeping, dressing, grooming, caring for hygiene, bathing, learning, socializing and participating in the family and community.                            


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Christie Kiley MA, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, who specializes in working with children with sensory integration issues and developmental disabilities. She has experience working in early intervention (birth to 3), clinic-based, and school-based settings. 

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