Dunn, Winnie - Dunn's Model of Sensory Processing

The Structure of Concern Project compares many theoretical models from many disciplines to the Adizes PAEI model, arguing that they must all be reflecting the same underlying phenomenon. One concern structure model is described below.

Dunn's Model of Sensory Processing was developed in the field of occupational and educational counseling. Dunn proposes that four sensory processing patterns characterize the perceptual process. These patterns are thought to arise from individual differences in neurological thresholds for stimulation (high-low) and self-regulation strategies (active-passive). Crossing these dimensions gives us four sensory processing styles (Dunn, 2001; 1997).

P - Low Registration (High, Passive)
Low-registering people might be described as insensitive or disconnected. They do not pick up on subtle environmental cues, and require very clear and surgent directives. Most events of daily life are not intense enough to stimulate deep processing for these people, and their passive-reactive self-regulatory stance makes them somewhat oblivious to ongoing activity that is not explicitly engaging them.

A - Sensory Avoiding (Low, Active)
Sensory input bothers avoidant people, so they try to limit the input they must deal with. Unfamiliar input is distressing and difficult to understand or organize, so avoiders regularize their experience through rituals, rules and habits. These provide a high rate of familiar input while limiting exposure to new input. The threatening nature of change can make sensory avoiders rigid, uncooperative and withdrawn.

E - Sensory Seeking (High, Active)
Sensory seekers need and enjoy high levels of sensory stimulation, and they generate extra input for themselves. They are active, engaging and excitable. They place a high premium on novelty, which can be disruptive in cases where they do not persist in beneficial activities, abandoning them for something new once the novelty of the initial activity has worn off.

I - Sensory Sensitivity (Low, Passive)
Sensitive people detect more input and notice more sensory events than others, and comment on them regularly rather than trying to ward them off. They are distractible and can be complainers. They are helped by participating in structured experiences so they are not overwhelmed by unstructured and disruptive input.

Dunn’s sensory profiles have been associated with psychophysiological correlates for each sensory processing pattern, as well as specific patterns of habituation and skin conductance response for classes of individuals sharing strong preferences for one of the four styles. Dunn relates these sensory processes to models of temperament, and suggests that sensory preferences form a basis for the manifestation of temperament and personality. The profile has also been survey-mapped to US nationwide samples of infants, children and adults with and without disabilities, producing recommendations for how to structure the sensory environment for people coping with various conditions.

An interesting point surfaces in comparison other concern structure models. The P and I styles are often represented as more ‘active’ or engaged than A or E. P produces effects in instrumental matters and I in interpersonal/social matters. Conjoined with Dunn’s profiles, this suggests a kind of displacement. Since P and I are passive at sensory regulation, they have more need to act externally to control their environmental input. A and E actively structure their own sensory experience, and so they have less need to interact with their environment in extrapersonal space. P and I thus develop expertise in implementing or interacting, and A and E in planning and visioning.

1. Dunn, W. (1997). “The impact of sensory processing abilities on the daily lives of young children and their families: a conceptual model.” Infants and Young Children, 9(4), 23-35.
2. Dunn, W. (2001). “The sensations of everyday life: empirical, theoretical, and pragmatic considerations.” The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 55(6), 608-620.
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