What is Sensory Processing?
Although the term “sensory’ is one that today tends to get thrown around alot (think: fuzzy blankets, itchy scarves, fussy eating…) in reality, ”Sensory” can be used in the context of behaviors.
So if you would describe your child as noisy, wild, anxious, over-reactive, super fussy, or avoidant- believe it or not, ‘Sensory’ may have a lot to do with it!
As we go about our day, our brains are constantly being fed information through our senses. The role of Sensory Processing is to define that information for us. For example, any sound that you hear enters our brain through the ears as soundwaves.
Then, based on past experiences, the brain defines that information as safe/unsafe, loud/soft, comfortable/uncomfortable etc.
Only once that definition is in place, can we put out an appropriate response.
We run into problems when for whatever reason, the brain is not fully or correctly processing incoming information. This is where an itchy sweater or tag is processed as ‘life-threatening’ rather than just plain old itchy. Or a sound is processed as dangerous and uncomfortable, when most people would not find it offensive at all!
This is what we call Sensory Processing Disorder- or SPD.
When you have a child that has sensory information that’s not coming IN properly,
you have behavior that doesn’t come OUT properly.
This is why parenting a child with SPD can be so challenging, because you are dealing with behaviors that are extremely difficult to manage, and look so much like defiance, disrespect, unnecessary fussiness, aggression etc.
But it's actually just survival,
These behaviors are a result of a mishap that occurred in the brain. Your child with SPD is not trying to misbehave, be fussy or difficult, they are experiencing the intensity of a moderately warm room, as you would if I put you in a sauna!
They aren’t making it up, it is actually the way that they feel!
The problem is that when you treat a sensory issue with behavioral ‘treatment’ like strong discipline, it’s like taking tylenol to heal a broken leg.
It may ease the pain somewhat, but the leg is still broken.
Discipline doesn't treat incapability.
How does Sensory Processing work?
There are two different types of sensory processing challenges.
Sensory defensiveness- The brain is highly sensitive to incoming sensory information
and therefore produces an overreaction.
Sensory seeking- The brain requires larger than typical amounts of input to register and create a response.
In order to maintain a healthy sense of calm, satisfaction and alertness throughout the day, and then easily fall asleep at night, the sensory system needs to have been stimulated to a certain level. Therefore, a person who isn't getting enough into the system, is constantly on the lookout for more.
What’s interesting is that a person who struggles with sensory processing may be seeking in one sense, and sensory defensive in another.
Let's look at some examples of what sensory seeking and sensory defensiveness look like within the context of specific senses.
Believe it or not, we actually have 8 senses, not 5! They are:
- Vestibular (Balance and movement)
- Proprioception (body awareness)
- Interoception (Awareness of physical and emotional messages and sensations in the body)
Here we are going to take a look at two of our senses and the defensive and seeking profiles for each.
An adult or child that is tactile defensive, is highly sensitive to any information that is transferred through the skin.
Being touched lightly may seem like a full on push and clothing can get complicated as most items are deemed uncomfortable.
Other common challenges related to tactile defensiveness are:
- Reluctance to participate in large groups,
- Objects to having stickers put on skin
- Rubs or scratches a part of the body that has been previously touched
- Difficulty tolerating grooming activities like, hair brushing, teeth brushing, clipping their nails, haircuts, the dentist etc.
On the other hand, a tactile seeking brain will enjoy and exhibit increased tactile exploration. Nothing is out of hands reach!
Everything on your counters, in the bedrooms even in other people’s houses, the teacher’s desk, their friend’s desks and backpacks….must be and will be touched.
They may also use their mouth for tactile exploration. Whether its clothing, pens, lego pieces, anything inedible and small, it all heads straight into the mouth.
A tactile seeker will often lack understanding of the personal space needs of others, enjoy lots of movement and rough and tumble play, hug hard and seem over cuddly.
The vestibular sense is our body’s ability to process movement. It is this system that tells me; am I moving, or am I still? What direction am I moving in? How fast am I moving?
A vestibular defensive profile will struggle with:
- Motion sickness- also known as ‘car sickness”, these are all vestibular related challenges
- Dizzy or feeling nauseous after spinning, swinging, or walking on an uneven surface.
- Avoids moving the head to look up and down, left and right in a fast motion.
- Difficulty or unwillingness to copy from the board in the classroom because the head movement makes them lose focus
- Reluctance to participate in movement activities
- Fear of heights or stairs
- Low activity level- prefers sedentary activities like drawing, jigsaw puzzles, crosswords puzzles
On the other hand, a vestibular seeking profile often looks like a lot of the same very intense movements. For example, excessive spinning, jumping, running back and forth, hyperactivity, excessive rocking swaying etc.
They also exhibit a high activity level and prefer active activities like bike riding, jogging, trampolining etc.
There are many other challenges associated with sensory processing that fall under the category of our other senses, like overreaction to moderately loud sounds, non-noxious smells, and fussy eating.
So how can YOU help?
Our sensory processing and parenting toolkits at childrenbloom.com is a comprehensive course where you can learn to:
- how to identify SPD
- Understand related behaviors
- Easy, fun-filled, effective home activities that can help reduce sensory challenges
- Parenting guidance that will help keep your child feeling safe, understood and loved.
Join the Bloom family with an all-access membership today!
To your potential,