I truly believe that a child’s ability to regulate sensory input is one of the most important factors in a successful educational experience. When a person’s sensory system is unable to take in the correct amount of sensory stimulation from the environment, self-regulation becomes very difficult.
Any person, even those with no specific diagnosis may have sensitivities to certain types of input. Those diagnosed with autism or ADHD will often experience sensory issues within their diagnosis. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a separate diagnosis that can stand alone.
Think about your own sensory sensitivities. I am sensitive to light. If I forget my sunglasses and drive with the bright sun in my eyes, I get a headache. I prefer soft lamps to overhead lights. I prefer natural lighting to fluorescent bulbs. My eyes take in too much light stimulus. I regulate it by wearing sunglasses and using desk lamps instead of overhead lighting. How might I react if I didn’t have the words to say that I needed sunglasses? What if I were unable to express verbally that the light hurts my eyes? Perhaps I would refuse to go to recess because I knew the sunlight would give me a headache. Maybe I would lay my head on my desk to cover my eyes if I were in a bright classroom.
The Five Senses Plus
Occupational therapists (OT) typically work with students in schools who have sensory issues that affect their academic performance. You may hear an OT use technical words for each sensory area.
The following is a breakdown:
Proprioception = how our bodies feel in relation to objects and people in the environment
Children with proprioception difficulties may need more input to feel where their body is in relation to objects. These students may fall out of their seats or they may be wary walking up and down stairs. These students may chew on their pencils or clothing and may display abnormal pain responses.
Vestibular = movement
Vestibular sensory comes from our inner ear. These student may seek constant movement such as spinning or they may avoid movement such as swings or escalators.
Tactile = touch
A child who is seeking input may seek out touch and pressure. A child who is sensitive may avoid being touched or having any type of pressure on his or her skin.
Visual = sight
As I described earlier, my visual system is over-responsive. It takes in too much light so I have to compensate to regulate my visual input. If a child’s visual system is under-responsive, he or she may love spinning objects, bright or shiny objects and bright toys with movement.
Gustatory = taste
If a child’s gustatory system is over-responsive, the student may avoid foods with strong smells and flavors. For a child with an under-responsive system, foods with stronger flavors and textures are typically preferred.
Auditory = sound
Many children with auditory issues are sensitive to the sounds of others. Oddly, many children on the spectrum are oblivious to their own noise!
Olfactory = smell
Some children are over-sensitive to smells. They may try to escape and avoid aversive smells; which may also be smells that neurotypical people don’t notice at all.
Interoception = internal state of the body
Interoception is the body’s ability to recognize and respond to internal sensors including: the need to use the bathroom; feeling hungry or thirsty; having a headache or stomach ache or feeling tired.
Within every sensory area, a person may be over or under-responsive. Every person is unique as is each of our sensory systems. In future blogs, I will address each area separately and provide suggestions on implementing sensory strategies. I will also share several items to the Spotlight Product that I have used over the years!
A special thank you to the fabulous OTs I’ve worked with over the years who have taught me everything I know. A special shout out to Sharon, Stephanie and Megan!!