A metaphor often used to describe sensory processing issues is the foundation of a house. I don’t know where I first heard this metaphor, so my apologies for not giving credit where it might be due.
As in building a house, one must first have a firm foundation on which to build a house before proceeding with the framing. The framing must be secure before adding the walls and roof. All these foundational components must be in place, before you can paint the walls and decorate the house. If the foundation is not solid, the house eventually begins to have cracks and problems emerge.
The same holds true for our sensory system. We interact with the world through our senses. This forms the neurological foundation upon which we interpret the world around us. Listening, Language, Understanding, Speech, Movement, Social Skills, Cognitive Skills, Academic Skills are all based first upon our systems ability to take in, to notice, to correctly perceive and respond to the information we get from our senses.
Most of us know about the sense of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. But, two additional senses that are extremely important and less well known are the vestibular sense and the proprioceptive sense.
The vestibular sense is the one primarily associated with balance and the proprioceptive sense is associated with our muscles and joints and the information about our body’s position and movement. Typically, these senses are evaluated and treated by occupational therapists.
But, all of us, can notice symptoms and begin to recognize when a referral to an OT may be helpful. Just like building a house, it takes many different professionals to build the structure, so even if you’re not an OT, you can make a difference.
The lists are too extensive to include here, but just for a quick overview, take a look at each of our senses and three common symptoms of each that might suggest a potential problem.
• Over or under-sensitivity to sounds (covering ears for loud noises, not responding when spoken to)
• Difficulty repeating or rhyming
• Difficulty following directions
• Over or under excited with visual input (too much to look, too much on a page, too many toys out, not seeing obstacles, bumping into things)
• Avoiding bright lights (squinting, wearing a visor or glasses)
• Missing facial expressions
• Objects or seeks out certain foods (may be due to flavor, texture, temperature)
• Gags when eating
• Unable to distinguish foods having gone bad or eats nonedible objects
• Over or under-responsive to smells (may over react to certain smells with gagging or needing to be removed from stimulus, or doesn’t smell what others perceive as putrid)
• Sniffs people, objects and foods
• Doesn’t distinguish between smells
TOUCH/ TACTILE Symptoms:
• Over or under reacts to being touched (light touches are often especially offensive or even hurtful which is why certain clothing can be a problem or a tag on a shirt, seems unaware of touch unless it is intense)
• Difficulty with activities that involve touch (brushing hair, teeth, bathing)
• Not aware of whether clothes are on correctly or food is on face
• Over or under reaction to movement (seeking out movement like spinning, rocking, swinging, jumping as well as getting sick from and avoiding such movements)
• Thrill seeker (enjoys heights, being upside down,)
• Falls often, needs physical support, avoids changing head position
• Over or under reactivity to touch, gravity and movement (craves touch or avoids it)
• Poor body awareness (clumsy, bumping into others and objects)
• Resists novelty and challenges, depends upon the familiar to be able to negotiate his or her world.
Sensory issues can exist on their own or as part of other developmental disorders such as ASD, ADHD, Learning Disabilities and other developmental conditions.
Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a professional or a person with these symptoms, it is important to recognize that our foundations need to be in place to maintain the higher level skills required of us. If we just ‘treat’ symptoms and don’t understand the underlying problem, we are missing the opportunity for real change.
I couldn’t talk about Sensory Processing Disorders without mentioning one of the best books on the subject. The Out of Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz. Carol is the editor of the International Magazine called S.I. Focus. As of January, 2011, it will be an entirely digital magazine and subscriptions are on sale in December & January for only $10.00.