What is Perceptual Processing and Discrimination?

This question is often asked but not so easy a question to answer. The words “discriminating tastes”  bombard us on our TV’s, radios, iPads and billboards. Implying that if you ONLY do this  ONE thing you will be a discriminating connoisseur of ______________________________your whatever.

Such popular definitions can lead to Wishful thinking that can be all at once falsely uplifting, defeating, damaging, misleading, and often incorrect and for the layman, new parent, inexperienced care giver leaving in its wake a pile of misconceptions that leaves a parent truly trying to help her child but who is currently overwhelmed by an avalanche of theories and words that are pouring over the parent turning this barrage of information into a Mother’s Guilt Trip Tsumani.

So let’s pedal back to some very basic definitions of perception itself before with deal with the over-lay of perceptual interactions that eventually emerge as what is commonly referred to as “Processing”.

Without wanting to go too deep into the neurology of the eye the structures within the brain it touch, overlaps and influences lets think of perceptual processing as different instruments in an orchestra. Like an orchestra the perceptual system has its “players’ and functions and only when they all work in harmony do we get the real music of understanding.  (i.e. cognitive understanding)

First Chairs always go to the basic discriminators—theses guys let us all know we are here and more or less in the “seats” we should be in.

Continuing with the “Orchestra Metaphor” think of the brain as described below (an oversimplification, of course)–

Supporting the First Chairs Discriminators and the General Memory players.  These folks remember the most of the music but are really good at playing it immediately after hearing it.

The next section is for gets everyone in their right place and lets them know when they out of their proper place; visual spatial relationships. This section may have the least orderly section with chairs pointed all which ways, but this is the group that has to sound as ONE no matter which way their seats are turned and whether or not their seats turn, straight or backward. All there players have specific relationships with each other.

Our next section has a lot of similar instruments some larger, some smaller but all making similar and/harmonious sounds this included reading their music and those of the other guys so that they can stay on track with the other players.  In visual perceptual terms these are your Visual Form Constancy players.

Then comes Percussion loud when the need to be, soft when required that put the accent marks on well placed melodies while all the other music is going on, these players are your Visual Figure Ground Players.

But last but not least a real orchestra needs a conductor and that is your Visual Closure System.  Just like the conductor can hear the slightest from the back as clearly as he does with those from the front, the Visual Closure System organizes what is only partially seen and brings it forth as a full and integral player for our everyday “orchestra” call LIFE.

And it happens in nano-seconds, automatically as if it is on “auto-pilot.  That is for most of us.

When these systems are not working  (for whatever reason research as not as yet clearly defined) the child experiences life out of sync, discordant and at variance with their environment which may include peers, Teachers, therapists, etc. producing and child that may outwardly appear to be argumentative, have poor impulse control, conflicted, harsh to self and others all the while displaying a self that is inharmonious to both self and others.

Think of yourself with really good table manners invited to eat dinner, elegantly laid out and served on the main deck of a cruiser crossing the over to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.; a 2-hour almost always a smooth as glass  trip …….but…..expected rough currents appear the plates shift the food spills and after initial shock and dither the repair mode sets in.

Imagine time after time knowing how the music should sound, being invited to the best seat at the best table and then never getting there because “something happens’.  For little children the “something that happens” is all too often incorrectly absorbed as their fault and so they try with their limited repertoire of management behaviors to try to “fix it” and it gets worse and their self-esteem plummets producing an array of behaviors from isolation to acting out.

While indeed sensory integration is a huge part of out lives, there are other related systems that must be regarded as well. Independently and in conjunction within our neuro-muscular cognitive neighborhood called our body.  We all are the sum of many parts that create the whole of our unique selves.

Children are no different. Their impulse behaviors may not be as mature, their ability to delay gratification may be more frail, they may have all their emotions right on top and for the most part, their “honesty button” is always on.  Subtle is on their vocabulary list and “wait” is a concept readily used, often selecting more reactionary behaviors.

With computers giving us “popcorn brains” and fast food getting even faster, it is no wonder that we gravitate to fast answers as well. However with developing children with sensory motor perceptual growing constantly going on sometimes a slower more careful look both by observing and testing can give the best result for formulating a protocol that will help your child express their potential, ease into learning, and most of all develop a healthy curiosity that stimulates a life-long habit of wanting to learn.

The following checklist is provided for parents and teachers to begin the conversation IT IS NOT A DIAGNOISTIC TOOL. If more that 2 items in each are noted a full occupational screening is advised. Check items “yes” or “no” ONLY  (“well he does do this sometimes would be counted as a “no”) Remember we are looking for mastery, skills done without assistance and with proper form.

It can be used in part with a formal screening or as a checklist for teachers and related educational professionals.



__Problems taking on/off coat

__Cannot tie shoes

__Cannot manipulate buttons, snaps, zippers


__Needs reminders to keep track of belongings

__Rejects certain fabrics

__Always wears socks, resists bare feet

__Habituates wearing 1-2 specific outfits



__Poor motor learning (new skills)

__Mixed and/or no hand preference

__Poor handwriting

__Frustrated with fine motor tasks

__Difficulty copying from desk/board

__Writing “floats” off the writing line

__Poor gross motor (Running, jumping, skipping)

__Looses place when reading or copying

__Poor grasp (awkward use of pencil/crayon)

__Poor writing pressure

__Works unusually slowly

__Cannot make numbers in a column

__Cannot color inside the lines as needed

__Poor reproduction of shapes/forms/


__Reverse letters or numbers when reading or writing

__mix up his/her right and left sides



__Difficulty staying focused



__Overly dependent on teacher/parent

__Forgets homework/bookbag, etc.

__Poor sequencing skills

__Sloppy desk/notebook

__Easily distracted

__Gets easily into a “white noise space: so he startles with unexpected noises.

__Difficulty initiating tasks

__Difficulty transitioning from one skill/task to another

__Needs instructions repeated

__Gets confused easily

__Habitually late coming in from activities

__Difficulty skimming page for information

__Poor spelling

__Refuses to get hands dirty

__Gets upset if too many papers, toys in personal area

__Cannot stay with task for any long period of time



__Not many or few friends

__Complains that “someone hit” them

__Difficulty with cooperative tasks

__Multiple somatic (physical) complaints

__Poor eye contact when speaking to peers, adults, new acquaintances (circle one)

__Limited or absent awareness of ambient social cues (i.e. facial expressions, etc.)

__Needs teacher to soothe so that child can nap

___Stays to the fringes of the group instead of interacting with peers

__Talks or gestures to peers while eating

__Shares toys is able to give up a toy easily and go on to another one with minimal disruption

__Withdraws when an unfamiliar person enters area/class/playground etc.

__Messy eater

__Hesitant to interact with peers

__Problems lining up with classmates

__Difficulty discerning personal space

__Poor expression of thought, ideas, and feelings

__Overly sensitive to corrective remarks (criticisms)

__Avoid talking out in class, and/or participating in discussions

__Easily frustrated

__Speaks but only to 1-2 people otherwise very quiet or not speaking at all

–We work well briefly however gives up when first “mistake’ is made

__Not understand jokes

__Waits to watch the actions of peers before entering into an activity

__Has a hard time accepting “no” from teacher

__Has to have his name said many times before a reaction is elicited

__Difficulty reading body language or facial expressions

__Refuses utensils


The checklist was designed and created by Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L, FAOTA  from various sources and may be use with written permission and source recognition only .It is the intellectual property of Children’s Special Services, LLC