Going Beyond the 5 Senses – What Sensory Processing Is and Why It Matters
We are constantly experiencing many different types of sensations – the pull of gravity on our bodies, the movement of our body through space, pressure in our joints, temperature, and the list goes on.
When most of us think about the “senses” we go back to the main five we learned in kindergarten – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. In reality, though, there are many senses beyond these obvious five.
Our sensory processing system is essentially a highly sophisticated brain-body connection that allows us to take in information through all available senses, interpret the information, come up with a response, and act on it.
What seems like a very simple process is anything but!
What happens when sensory processing breaks down:
When our sensory processing system is working well we are able to automatically make sense of an appropriately respond to the sensations we experience on a moment-to-moment basis without consciously thinking about it.
But when there is a breakdown in one or more parts of the sensory processing system it can create havoc in our ability to function normally. Our ability to make sense of the environment and move appropriately within it depends on our brain’s ability to smoothly process and respond to information.
Think of a time when something physical was really bothering you. Maybe it was a scratchy tag in the back of your shirt, or the smell of someone’s strong perfume, or really loud thumping bass in a song. We all have certain sensations that bother us more than others.
When we think about those things we realize that in situations where we are exposed to them it is difficult for us to concentrate on other things. We become driven to relieve ourselves of the irritation those things cause for us.
Our typical response to any of the above irritations would be to cut the tag out of our shirt, move away from the person with the strong perfume, or turn down the radio. But what happens when you either can’t come up with a solution or can’t escape the irritation?
- We begin to get agitated and frustrated.
- Our attention becomes focused on this problem as opposed to what we are supposed to be doing.
- Our motor abilities are also impacted and our movements, both small muscle groups and large muscle groups, are compromised.
- We may appear uncoordinated or make what appear to be strange movements, all because our sensory system is not functioning optimally at that moment.
Now think about a child who is trying to operate with a sensory system that is easily irritated by things that happen to them every moment of the day. What happens to the child whose system is unable to appropriately process:
- Light – what we consider normal lighting feels too bright to them
- Sound – typical sounds are too loud and hurt their ears
- Smell – even typical smells are strong and offensive
- Touch – certain kinds of touch or fabrics hurt or irritate them
- The position of their body in space – they can’t tell where they are and “get lost in space” when they aren’t directly touching something in the environment
What happens to these kids?
They are constantly being “insulted” by their environment and their activities of daily living. They can’t articulate what the problem is most of the time, but it is very clear that there is a problem!
What we see on the outside may appear to be inappropriate behavior, outbursts, low frustration tolerance, avoidance of certain things or activities, poor coordination, sloppy handwriting, and the list goes on and on.
When we see these things we must become detectives and look at what underlying sensory systems may be breaking down for them – and then we can develop a targeted plan to strengthen those systems.
The “red flags” that indicate sensory problems:
It is important for you to be aware of certain “red flags” that can indicate that your child is having sensory problems. Sensory integration therapy often can positively impact these, and other, symptoms:
- Overly sensitive to touch, movement, sights, or sounds
- Under reactive to touch, movement, sights, or sounds
- Easily distracted
- Social and/or emotional problems
- Activity level that is unusually high or unusually low
- Physical clumsiness or apparent carelessness
- Poor fine motor skills, including handwriting
- Impulsive, lacking in self-control
- Difficulty making transitions from one situation to another
- Inability to unwind or calm self
- Poor self-concept
- Delays in speech, language, or motor skills
- Delays in academic achievement
If you can “see” your child in any or all of the above list – don’t despair! Many children with and without other impairments have sensory processing and motor problems in one form or another. There is treatment available that can make a significant difference in your child’s ability to process sensation and, therefore, function in everyday life.
Our CORE Approach at Horizons provides support to a child’s underdeveloped sensory-motor system and strengthens it to allow for improved functioning.
Contact our office to schedule a free 15-minute initial consultation to find out how our programs and services can meet your needs.