Defining Sensory | Uncovering Sensory Processing Disorders in Children
In recent years, we’ve learnt more about how sensory function can influence a child’s behaviour. Sensory function refers to how our kids perceive and react to sensory information and the impact these different sensations have on their ability to function.
The other two lesser known sensory functions
In addition to the well known senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight), there are two more less commonly known areas of sensory function. These are proprioception and vestibular function. Proprioception refers to our sense of where our body is in space. If you close your eyes and lift your arm over your head, you can feel where your arm is. You don’t need your eyes to give you that information. You just know. This applies to all our body parts. Vestibular function is related to our sense of movement and our head position. The vestibular system maintains our balance. Our article 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Trampolines sheds some more light on vestibular function.
Sensory Processing Disorders in children
You may have heard of Sensory Processing Disorder or the terms ‘disregulated’ or ‘poor sensory integration’. It’s not uncommon for kids (especially those on the autism spectrum) to have sensory processing difficulties. As we grow and change, our immature systems need to develop. Sometimes, these systems take a little longer than usual, and we see signs and symptoms of dysfunction. Some kids are fussy eaters. Others complain their clothes are scratchy. Some kids, actually many kids, go a little crazy in windy weather. Kids (and adults too!) can be hypersensitive to sensory stimulus, meaning that a little bit of sensory input can be irritating, uncomfortable and/ or distracting. The opposite can also occur. This is especially the case for our sensory seeking kids, for example those that crave extra movement (the fidgeters), love strong flavours or have the urge to touch everything in sight.
Too little or too much sensory input
Interestingly, kids can be avoiders of some sensory stimulus, but seek other types of sensory input. We are very complex creatures! Where sensory input is too overwhelming, or the need to obtain sensory input is too great, this can result in difficult behaviours. You may see kids that just don’t cope in certain situations and need specific strategies to get by. This is particularly true of kids with autism spectrum disorder.
Special events for children with sensory challenges
Many organisations and event coordinators have realised the need to provide opportunities for kids on the spectrum that accommodates their sensory challenges. A wonderful example of this is the Sensory Movie Days, where kids are able to see a movie in a cinema where the lights and volume are low level, and the kids are permitted to move about as needed, and stimming (e.g flapping, vocalising, and other spontaneous noise or movement) is accepted.
More and more activities and events are being promoted as being sensory friendly. For parents of kids with sensory challenges, be aware that not all of these events or activities will be appropriate for your child. It is important to be aware of your child’s individual sensory needs. Just because something is advertised as being ‘sensory friendly’ does not necessarily mean that they will be protected from excessive noise or smells, or they will not encounter crowds. Conversely, if you are looking for sensory-rich experiences, a sensory friendly event may not provide this for your child. It’s best to do your homework before signing up.
Where to go to get help for your child
If you have concerns about your child’s behaviour, and suspect that he or she has some sensory challenges, an Occupational Therapist can help to identify what those challenges are, and provide strategies to help.