What is multisensory processing?

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC May 11, 2022

What is multisensory processing blog post

Maybe you’ve heard the term “multisensory processing” before but do you know what it means and understand how it can help improve learning outcomes?

Do you know how to incorporate multisensory into your child’s learning?

These are the topics that we’re going to dive into in this article!

What is multisensory processing?

Multisensory processing refers to the interaction of signals arriving nearly simultaneously from different sensory modalities.” 

Multisensory refers to more than one sense.

We all know about our 5 main senses - sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. But we also have 3 hidden senses - vestibular, proprioception, and interoception

We are constantly bombarded with sensory information from our environment. This sensory information is not directed to just one single sense at a time. For example, when you eat breakfast you are not only experiencing the taste (gustatory), but also the smell (olfactory), the touch (tactile), and the visual (sight).

Another example is when you are driving. You experience visual input as well as auditory (hearing traffic), vestibular (movement of not only the car but also when you turn your head to look at your surroundings), touch (touching the steering wheel and the seat), and more!

Whoa! That’s a lot of sensory information - a lot of multisensory processing!

Our children are also constantly experiencing multisensory input throughout their day. In the morning when they wake up and get ready for the day, at school with their friends and while learning, during sports or other extracurricular activities, at home while eating, dressing, bathing, etc., and while they get ready for bed at night.

multisensory input

Our bodies receive the sensory input from our environment and our brains interpret that input which then produces a reaction. One of two things typically happens - our brain interprets the sensory input appropriately and our body is able to tolerate the input and react accordingly; or our brain interprets the sensory input inappropriately and our body is unable to tolerate the input and creates a large over-reaction. This second option can happen with multiple senses or just one at a time. This is where sensory processing challenges occur.

But let’s stick with multisensory processing for now! In order for a child to successfully move through their day and their daily tasks, they must be able to process all different types of input simultaneously. Additionally, from a learning perspective, when we provide learning opportunities that incorporate multiple senses (multisensory!), the child stands a greater chance of success with memory, auditory processing, and more!

Challenges with multi-sensory processing

How do you know if your child has challenges with multi-sensory processing?

It’s going to look very similar or even identical to overall sensory processing challenges! But you may be able to pinpoint some differences.

For example, a child with vestibular processing challenges may dislike and avoid movement based activities. However, a child with vestibular and visual processing challenges may struggle significantly with hand-eye coordination tasks.

Another example is a child with auditory processing challenges may struggle to follow 2-3 step auditory instructions, while a child with auditory and visual processing challenges may struggle to follow both auditory and visual instructions equally.

Because all 8 of our senses are connected to each other in one way or another, if a child struggles to process input from one system they are likely to also struggle with processing input from another system. For example, one research study found that, “Although the perception of speech is based on the processing of sound, what we actually hear can be influenced by visual cues provided by lip movements.” Therefore, if a child struggles with auditory processing and visual processing, their ability to understand and follow speech may be very challenging.

The benefits of multi-sensory activities

Let’s briefly talk about why activities designed with multi-sensory components are so beneficial for all children.

One research study reported that working memory and attention can be directly related to successful multi-sensory processing.

Another study found that many cognitive abilities and processes are dependent on successful multi-sensory processing.

If we break down the components of working memory, we take into account that working memory requires the use of the visual system, the auditory system, and oftentimes the tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive systems (touch and movement!) - we recall what we see and what we hear, what we touch and what we do. If we break down attention, we can look at the fact that sustained attention to a task requires successful processing of the environment’s visual and auditory input, potentially olfactory input (any distracting smells), and tactile input - we can’t let any of those distract us from what we are attending to.

Additionally, any time we are processing sensory information, especially more than one at a time, we are creating new neural pathways in the brain! This can potentially help us improve the above mentioned cognitive processes as well as processing speed and coordinating body movements. Plus, the more we do it, the better we get!

Multi-sensory activities for all ages

How can you incorporate more mulitsensory activities for your child? Let’s go through some ideas and break them down by age!

Birth - 3 years

At birth, you will keep the sensory experiences fairly simple. A little bit of visual stimulation with high contrast books and slow visual tracking activities as babe’s eyes begin to work together (around 4 months). A little bit of vestibular input from walking with you, learning to roll, and riding in the car. Some great proprioceptive input during tummy time and tactile input from clothing, blankets, and snuggles. Throw in some auditory input with classical music and nursery rhymes as well as small amounts of olfactory input from diluted essential oils and being out in nature.

Once babe is up and moving - crawling and then walking - they are naturally getting lots of vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile, and visual input all at once, just from moving their body!

Incorporate other sensory components by providing a variety of simple cause-and-effect toys, different texture blankets and surfaces to move on, a wide variety of food items with different smells and textures, and continuing to provide simple auditory activities with music.

Pre-K and elementary age

sensory input with swing

This is where you can get really creative with your multi-sensory activities! Once your child is learning how to throw and catch playground balls, you can include that with movement activities - try throwing to a target while on a moving swing! Additionally, set up a simple obstacle course that your child can maneuver through on their scooter or tricycle (or try a strider bike) - set up cones that they have to steer through (lots of vestibular, proprioceptive, and visual input!).

Obstacle courses are a great way to complete multi-sensory activities. Include crawling and jumping components, a sensory bin for some great tactile and visual input, music or practicing counting and the alphabet for some auditory input, and don’t forget about the olfactory and gustatory systems! Try some scratch ‘n sniff stickers; try stringing cheerios onto a necklace; get creative and see how many sensory systems you can include simultaneously!

This is a great age to introduce your child to a metronome! You can download a free app or find a metronome beat on YouTube. Start by simply clapping to the beat set at 60 beats per minute (BPM). Once your child has mastered that, you can try different clapping and patting patterns - be sure to include not just the arms but also the legs! These activities are perfect for incorporating vestibular, proprioceptive, visual, tactile, and auditory pieces.

Once your child is beginning to read and write, you can use the metronome to practice spelling and writing. Simply turn the metronome to 60 BPM and practice spelling words on the beat. You can even try writing them on the beat. This rhythm can help improve that working memory we talked about earlier!

Incorporating full body movements into metronome activities can be beneficial as well! Try crawling on the beat at 60 BPM. Get the visual system going and play catch on the beat. The possibilities are endless!

Teens and adults

Keep using the metronome as your child gets older! Practice more complex spelling words, math problems, and even complete different movement sequences to the beat.

Try changing the beat to 120 BPM and doing the task on every other beat. Combine all of it - a spelling word plus jumping jacks simultaneously. Talk about some seriously great multi-sensory processing!

We have some great activities in our multisensory processing digital course. Check it out here!

Don’t forget to try these activities yourself! Adults can also benefit from multi-sensory activities and can be used as great brain/sensory breaks throughout the day to help wake up your body and your mind!

Don't miss our video showing our Top 5 Multi-Sensory Activities and Why We Love Them

Final note

Once you start intentionally incorporating multi-sensory activities into your child’s day, you’ll not only be able to see the benefits but you’ll also get really good at doing it!

Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC and Jessica Hill, COTA/L both Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA). They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Rachel and Jessica specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Rachel and Jessica are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Rachel and Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


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