Sensory Systems 101

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

I commonly tell parents my little spiel about sensory processing. I like to think of our sensory systems as cars in our brain. As we process our sensory information our "cars" drive that information to the right place to create motor plans and memories. When our sensory system is functioning properly, there is little to no traffic. When we have sensory processing difficulties/disorder it is more like a traffic jam. We are constantly taking in sensory information throughout the day, all day, every day.

We have our 5 known senses: tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory (smell), and gustatory (taste).

We also have 3 hidden sensory systems: vestibular (movement), proprioceptive (input to our joints), and introception (how our body communicates with our brain).

Why is sensory information so important? Research shows that sensory experiences build neural pathways which are important for learning complex tasks. Processing the sensory information that is all around us all day every day is extremely important for behavior, attention, self-regulation, and learning. Sensory play is important for language/social development, fine and gross motor skills, and cognitive development.

Tactile (Touch) System

  • This system processes tactile information coming into the body.

  • There are receptors in our skin that help us differentiate from light touch to deep touch, temperature, different textures, vibrations and pain.

  • Tactile input helps children develop body awareness, motor planning, and fine motor tasks.

  • How children process tactile input can have a significant impact on the child's emotional well-being.

Visual System

  • Our visual system interprets color, shape, size, orientation and movement.

  • Our visual system is crucial for keeping us safe, navigate in our environment, & help us locate objects.

  • Visual activities help with developing visual tracking, visual motor skills, visual attention, and visual discrimination.

  • Our visual system is closely linked to our other systems and important to development in all aspects.

Auditory System

  • The inner ear has 2 important systems: the cochlea interprets the sounds we hear and the vestibule helps the brain interpret what those sounds mean and what motor response we should have.

  • Our auditory system is closely linked to our vestibular system (where our body is in space).

  • It tells us if a sound is dangerous, alerting, calming, or if we are being given a command.

  • It is important for listening skills, communication, social skills and for general safety.

Gustatory (Taste) & Olfactory (Smell) Systems

  • Our olfactory system helps us differentiate different smells to tell us if things are dangerous, safe, strong etc.

  • Our gustatory system tells us if things are salty, sweet, sour, savory, bitter, spicy through our taste buds (receptors of the tongue).

  • These senses are closely linked and help our tongue interpret flavors as we smell them. Smells also trigger memories.

  • Oral exploration is important for establishing our sense of taste and differentiating between textures.

Vestibular (Movement) System

  • The vestibular system detects movement of our head through our inner ear.

  • It helps us determine where our body is in space, balance, direction, speed and when we are moving.

  • It helps children develop their sense of balance, posture & coordination. It refines our gravitational security: maintaining our position without falling.

  • When we move our heads, our vestibular system detects direction of movement and acceleration to tell us where our body is in space. This can cause difficulties with motion sickness & tilting the head back during bath time.

Proprioceptive (input to the joints) System

  • The proprioceptive system relies on the sensory information from our joints and muscles. It tells us where our body is in space, the direction of movement and the amount of force needed.

  • It is stimulated by pressure to our joints, movements of the limbs by pushing, pulling, hanging or lifting.

  • This system directly affects arousal level, attention, behaviors and muscle tone.

  • This is important for exploring their environment with their body and regulating their emotions.

Interoceptive (how the body communicates with the brain) System

  • The interoceptive system is how our body communicates with our brain (I'm hungry, I have to pee, I am in pain, etc.)

  • Nerve receptors all over our body tell us how our body is feeling. This directly affects our emotions, self-awareness, problem solving & social skills.

  • When our interoceptive system is functioning properly, it senses our body's emotions, needs, actions we need to reach our optimum function.

  • Difficulties modulating this system looks like being overly-responsive or under-responsive to input.

Over-responsive or Under-responsive?

We are constantly taking in sensory information all throughout the day. 💆🏼 For most of us, we are able to sort through it and it isn't a problem. For others, they have difficulty processing this sensory information (sensory processing disorder). Some will seek out sensory input or are under-responsive & some will become overwhelmed and avoid sensory input or are over-responsive. ⁠⁠


🔴 Not all people are only sensory seekers or avoiders. Most of the time, people are a combination. For example, someone may seek out touching other people but HATE when people touch them. Another example, would be a child turning the iPad volume ALL the way up but hate unexpected loud noises. It is important to know what your child's "triggers" are and their response to the triggers. 🔴⁠⁠


Difficulties processing sensory information can be treated by a trained and educated occupational therapist. There ARE solutions and sensory tips/tools to help regulate your child's sensory system. We want to be able to provide the right amount of sensory input so that your child can process the sensory information appropriate.

Follow my instagram/Facebook @ivegotyoubabes for more sensory information. I will be posting more sensory tips on how to help your avoiders or seekers. As well as, different sensory activities to implement with your little one! Always message me with your questions or concerns!

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