Pay Your Bill
What an Activity like Eating can Teach You about Sensory Processing Differences

By Fraser Sensory Supports and Training Manager Gina Brady and Pam Dewey • sensory tools, sensory friendly, sensory accommodations, inclusivity, sensory friendly environment, sensory friendly events, inclusion, sensory tools for autism, sensory tools for kids with autism, sensory bin, sensory sensitivity, sensory play, sensory bin for kids, autism, autism spectrum, neurodiversity, neurodivergent • April 13, 2023

The world is full of sensory information. When thinking about the senses in your body, you’re probably familiar with the five senses — taste, smell, hear, touch and see, but you actually have at least eight senses, including proprioception (body awareness), vestibular (balance/movement) and interoception (internal body processes). When your sensory system works as expected, your brain processes information from the eight senses and decides which to pay attention to and which to filter out or ignore.

To give you an idea of how much sensory information you take in at one time, let’s consider only your tactile sensory system or your sense of touch:

  • Right now, your tactile sensory system receives information from anything you’re touching or holding, like the phone or tablet you’re reading this blog on.
  • It’s also taking in information about the texture of your clothing, the touch of the furniture you’re sitting on, and possibly the feeling of the carpet against your feet.
  • Your tactile system is also processing the room’s temperature and anything that could be causing you pain.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it provides a glimpse into how much information a sensory system processes at once. To avoid sensory overload, your brain makes unconscious and quick decisions about what to pay attention to and which information to filter out because it isn’t important.

What are sensory processing differences?

People with sensory processing differences have a harder time filtering out sensory information. That means they might pay too much attention to “less important” information, while missing out on the “more important” information. Some individuals experience sensory overload in these situations, and others may emotionally withdraw.

Since the world contains so much sensory information, most daily activities impact more than one sense at a time.

Here’s how one activity can impact all eight senses, so you can better understand how sensory processing differences affect people. In this example, Fraser Sensory Supports & Training Program Manager Gina Brady will use an activity everyone does: eating.


When you eat, you’re taking in visual information from your food. What colors do you see; what are the shapes of the food; how full or empty is your plate and how do your portions compare to your plate size? Lighting can also affect your eating experience. Does more or less lighting change the environment, or how you interact with the food?


When you’re eating, you make chewing sounds, and any people you’re eating with also make chewing sounds. Your food might be loud and crunchy or make slurpy sounds. You might hear metal utensils screeching against your plate. Perhaps, there is background noise like music, conversation or a TV.

People with sensory differences might be overwhelmed when someone is chewing loudly. Or, perhaps the sound of a metal fork on a plate makes them cringe and want to cover their ears. Or maybe all these sounds together — the person chewing, the metal fork, the background conversation — combine to make a completely overwhelming sensory experience that results in a meltdown.


The food’s texture might be wet, dry, hard, soft or sticky. The food might also be hot, lukewarm or cold. Then there is the feel of the fork, spoon, knife or chopsticks in your hands. Maybe you got food on your hands or face that you’ll need to clean off when you’re done.


When eating, you smell your food and the food of people around you. If you’re eating outside, you might smell car exhaust, flowers or any other smells in the air. You can also smell the soap you used to wash your hands and the scented shampoo or perfume the people around you are wearing. Your sense of smell is closely linked to your sense of taste.

For people with sensory differences, new or particular smells can be upsetting. Maybe they dislike the smell of fish, so if the person at the next table is eating fish, they become overwhelmed by the smell and have to leave the restaurant. Or, perhaps a certain perfume overwhelms their sense of smell and makes their food taste strange.  


Food can taste salty, sweet, spicy, sour, bitter or have an umami flavor. Maybe the food you’re eating has a familiar flavor, or perhaps it tastes unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before. If your sense of smell becomes temporarily or permanently impaired, it also changes your ability to taste food.

People with sensory differences often have a hard time with unfamiliar flavors. That can mean that going to a new restaurant or eating over at a friend’s house may not be possible. It can also limit the number of events they attend, if the events involve eating.


Your proprioceptive sensory system regulates the force you use to hold a fork, spoon, knife or chopsticks. Your proprioception also helps you keep the food on your utensil and maintain your posture while eating.

For people with sensory differences, sitting upright in a chair may feel unnatural, so they refuse to do so. Their body also may not send the right signals to know how to hold a fork, so they grip it too loosely.


Your vestibular sense also helps you maintain balance and posture while eating. It’s activated when you change body positions, like going from sitting to standing at the end of your meal.

Some people with sensory processing differences might also need extra vestibular input, which they seek by fidgeting or rocking in their chairs while eating. Depending on the environment, this can attract unwanted attention from fellow restaurant patrons, students, teachers or event attendees. If they have an over-reactive response to vestibular input, they might slouch or lean on the table while eating.


Eating fulfills your body’s need of hunger. While eating, other interoceptive processes are your breathing rate, heart rate and blood pressure. Interoceptive senses also include your level of alertness, feeling sick or healthy and your need to use the bathroom.

A person with sensory differences could also struggle with hunger cues, so they either don’t notice when they’re hungry, or they might continue eating even after they’re full.

We all need to eat to survive. For people with sensory processing differences, eating can present a number of barriers. Being aware of these barriers can help you be more sensitive to what others around you are experiencing. It also helps create a more inclusive environment.

The Fraser Festival, presented by Central Roofing Company, is on May 20, 2023, at the Saint Paul RiverCentre. This fun, one-of-a-kind, sensory-friendly festival is for anyone who wants to show their support for individuals and families impacted by autism. This year, the activities are arranged into zones for each of the eight senses. Participants can seek the areas and activities that best fit their sensory needs and preferences. If the sensory information at the festival becomes overwhelming, the Fraser Sensory Support team will be available to coach participants through regulation strategies, provide them with a sensory tool or show them to the calming space where they can take a break.