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Winnie Dunn’s Model of Sensory Processing and Integration

Winifred (Winnie) Dunn is a modern day scholar specializing in mental health behaviors, causes, and treatments.  She has devoted her entire professional career to understanding and standardizing sensory processing.  Dunn has an incredible research portfolio that includes over 150 scientific articles,

published books, and lectures.  Winnie studied at the University of Missouri and earned her master’s in special education with a focus on learning disabilities.  Her bachelor’s degree is in occupational therapy.  Dunn established 4 unique processing patterns that typically define a person who has a sensory processing disorder.

Two of the patterns are defined as sensory under-responsive, while the other two are over-responsive.  If one is under-responsive to the senses, they don’t quickly or clearly understand what their senses are conveying to them and ultimately don’t know how to react or are slow to respond to the sense.  Dunn categorized those patients as having Low Registration or are Sensory Seeking.

If one is over-responsive to their senses, they are over-stimulated by their senses and can react negatively to what their senses are processing. Dunn refers to these patients as Sensory Avoiding or having Sensory Sensitivity.

Dunn’s Processing Patterns

Sensory Under-Responsiveness:

Low Registration

Dunn’s pattern of low registration is often referred to as hypo-sensitivity

or poor sensory registration.  Common instances of low registration include:

  • Not knowing there is ice cream or other food smeared all around their mouth
  • Delay in response when their name is called
  • Difficulty finding objects that are right in front of them
  • Exerting excess pressure when throwing a ball or doing an action
  • Enjoys using a weighted blanket or heavy comforter

Sensory Seeking

Sensory seeking behaviors typically involve a desire for intense sensory stimuli that may include:

  • Loud music
  • Intense lighting effects or strobe lights
  • Enjoying crowded areas that are hustling and bustling
  • Strong odors, either good or unpleasant
  • Chewing or licking objects that are not edible

Sensory Over-Responsiveness:

Sensory Avoiding

Sensory Avoiding behaviors occur in those who are over-aware of their senses and stimuli are heightened.  They may show behaviors that include:

  • Prefer quiet settings
  • May encounter difficulty with stairways
  • Like loose fitting clothes as opposed to tight clothes
  • Not confident about their coordination
  • Prefer being in a corner alone with a teacher or loved one instead of playing with others

Sensory Sensitivity

Another behavior is sensory sensitivity and this usually has negative impacts on the person when exposed to normal sensory experiences.  They may have the following tendencies:

  • Become irritated or outraged by a loud noise or light
  • Experience anxiety or become scared if their personal space is invaded
  • Textures or surfaces that should be pleasant are registered as unpleasant
  • A strong gust of wind can make one upset
  • The beat of music could irritate them and they seek solitude instead

Dunn’s extensive focus on sensory processing enabled her to gain the title as department chair of occupational therapy at the University of Kansas Medical Center.  Dunn’s processing patterns are now used widely in the mental health and occupational therapy fields in order to diagnose and treat children with Autism, ADD, ADHD, and other mental health issues.

Understanding children’s sensory response patterns enable medical professionals, teachers, and parents to give the quality care to children with learning disabilities and delays.  Narrowing a patient down to one specific sensory behavior enables therapists to easily design a treatment plan that focuses on the patient’s specific sensitivities.  Patients are often put on a sensory diet which slowly introduces them to a variety of sensory stimuli and familiarizes them with senses that once negatively impacted them.


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