Sensory Spectacle

“Spin, roll, rock, bounce – he’s constantly moving”

Ever wondered why some children seem to be able to sit still through a movie and why others may fidget around? The simple answer is because we are all unique. We learn about how we interact and engage with our surroundings through our senses. Sensory processing is a personalised system - I love the smell of vanilla but I know many people who don’t, I like sweet foods but my parents prefer savoury - these are all examples of how my sensory perceptions make me who I am.

Even before we are born our senses are helping us to navigate, understand and engage with our surroundings. Most of us will be familiar with 5 of our senses – smell, taste, touch, sight & hearing. These are known as our external senses as all the messages travel from outside and into our body. Sound waves enter our ear, light enters our eye etc.

If you were to ask a scientist they would be able to tell you that we have up to 33 senses, 33 different sets of neurons which tell us about our world. We learn how to respond in different environments as our senses develop with age and as this happens we also develop certain skills.

Now other than the 5 senses I have just mentioned there are 3 others which are really important especially if we are supporting children and adults with additional needs. These are;
• Proprioception - our awareness of our body, we receive this information from our joints and muscles.
• Vestibular - this is our sense of movement in relation to gravity and is modulated by fluid which is between our ears.
• Interoception - this is the sense which alerts us when we are hungry, thirsty, need to go to the toilet etc.
These 3 are known as our internal senses as all the messages are received from inside our bodies.

When I teach about sensory processing difficulties in my workshops it is really important everyone there understands how these 8 senses work and why we need them.

In everything we do our senses have to work together. Our brain is incredibly clever at ignoring the sensations which are not important at that moment in time. Think about your big toe on your right foot, is it there? Give it a wiggle! Now unless you have a pain in your toe or you are walking around it is unlikely that you were aware of the sensations your brain was receiving about your toe as they aren’t important at this moment in time. However as soon as you walk you will be alerted to where your toe is and so become aware of these sensations.

Most of the time we don’t need to think about this however some people with a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) may. SPD is when our brains find it difficult to organise the messages it is receiving.

How would you feel if you were hearing all the little sounds in the room you’re in right now? The lights buzzing, radiators humming, people moving about, plug socket whirring, cars driving past outside, aeroplanes flying overhead, conversations in other rooms and cutlery clinking in the dishwasher next door.

I create immersive learning experiences which help us to gain a personal insight into how a SPD might feel as described by people living with the difficulty. If we can experience how it might feel we are more able to empathise and personalise the support we provide. Being Ben is a specific experience relating to this kind of auditory difficulty.

This is one example of how SPD can impact someone’s auditory processing. That person may be hearing and acknowledging all the sounds in their environment as being important and so perceiving them at the same volume. When too many sensations are processed this is known as being an ‘avoider’ or hyper sensitive. You may recognise children covering their ears, running out of busy places, putting their fingers in their ears or speaking really loudly – all to try and block out some of these sounds.

On the opposite side someone could also not be processing enough of a sensation and so will ‘seek’ it out. Someone who loves playing with reflections, spinning things or flapping things in front of their eyes could all be seeking visual stimulation and so are known as being hypo sensitive.

These are both difficulties with modulation and are just one way someone might have difficulty organising their sensory messages if they have SPD. On our workshops we cover how you can begin to identify characteristics like the ones mentioned above in our Classroom and Dining room guide books  as well as in depth in our FEEL IT workshop.

So going back to the person who finds it difficult to sit still – there could be many reasons for this, and as you now can understand this could relate to any of the senses. Often this moving can be seeking vestibular and proprioceptive sensations to help them to focus It’s not something they are doing to distract themselves from watching the film, it’s probably helping them to concentrate!

SPD can be supported with strategies, sensory support should not be used as a reward. Similarly a sensory behavior (or characteristic as I like to refer to) should not be stopped and disciplined in the same way as a negative behaviour. A sensory characteristic is how that person is regulating their body at that moment in time. We regulate ourselves so that we feel comfortable and are able to focus and engage. Once we have a better understanding of why someone might be rocking, bouncing, flapping or spinning it will help us to know what sensations that person is seeking or avoiding at that moment in time to feel ‘ok’.

On our YouTube series ‘Homelife’  we go into details about which sensory systems can relate to some people finding every day activities difficult to do, like getting their haircut or brushing their teeth.

If any of this post has left you with questions or wanting to know more then please head to our website  where you can find out how to attend a workshop, how to arrange an in-house course, you can buy any of our books including the guides mentioned above and our play and support book full of exciting suggestions to support people with SPD as well as FREE downloads to spread knowledge and awareness of SPD.

Becky Lyddon