Helping all children become happy learners
In order for us to interact with our environment we rely on information coming in from our senses. This includes the five senses that most of us our familiar with: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. It also includes our other senses like balance, pain, temperature and movement. There is no official agreement on the number of senses we have but it is thought to be more than twenty.
This article is focussed on the differences between people in the way they process, understand and interact with the world using their senses. This is a cognitive process occurring in the brain and involves the input from the sensory organs but does not involve the actual functioning of the sensory organs. Where a sensory organ is damaged this is known as Sensory Impairment.
The Main Senses
For the purpose of understanding sensory needs and sensory perception the main senses are:
Sight - ophthalmoception
Hearing - audioception
Taste - gustaoception
Smell - olfacoception
Touch - tactioception
Temperature - thermoception
Movement - proprioception
Pain - nociception
Balance - equilibrioception
Vibration - mechanoreception
Time - chronoreception
Understanding Sensory Perception
Our senses are working all the time though we are rarely conscious of most of them. We only think about them when they reach a threshold that grabs our attention. So we become conscious of smell when we burn a slice of toast or our balance if we walk across a rope bridge. Our conscious attention tends to be focussed on things that we can see and hear and so our perception of the world is heavily based on these two senses.
This is the ability of the central nervous system to assimilate, process and organize appropriate responses to information. For survival reasons we have to be able to react to any threat detected by our senses. We therefore continually monitor all the information coming in from our senses and make decisions about what is important and what can be safely ignored. So when trying to sleep we do not 'hear' a ticking clock but might be startled awake by the sound of a creaking stair.
As well as identifying dangers, we also need to filter sensory information so that we pay attention to things that have relevance to what we are doing. So when talking to a person in a crowded room we can listen to their voice whilst ignoring the conversations of others. The monitoring is still going on and if someone in the room mentions your name you become suddenly aware of their conversation. All of this monitoring, filtering and sorting of sensory input and then deciding what we need to pay attention to is called sensory processing.
It is natural for all of us to avoid unpleasant sensations. For someone who is hypersensitive they are likely to find lots of everyday experiences unpleasant. This leads them to try and avoid contexts when they experience this. Things that most people would be able to tolerate can be overwhelming for hypersensitive individuals and they take action to protect themselves from them. For example, this can be seen in children holding their hands over their ears around everyday noises like hand dryers, vacuum cleaners and school bells.
Sensory Processing Differences
In a sample of one hundred normal healthy individuals, with all their sense organs working properly, there would be differences in how each person processes sensory experiences. This is because; just like other human characteristics such as height; there is natural variance in sensory processing and the attention that we give to each of our senses. If we now rank our 100 healthy people from least sensitive to most sensitive then the 50th person would represent the average. Everyone else would experience sensory information in a more or less intense way than this person. For most people these differences would be very slight but for a few people it would make a significant difference. Where this difference means the individual is less sensitive this is known as hyposensitivity. The opposite is hypersensitivity for people who perceive sensory input more intensely. However, the situation is also more complex than described. Within one individual there is a natural waxing and waning of sensory sensitivity. This can be influenced by many different factors such as mood, tiredness, anxiety, motivation, stress and the sensory load as well as drug use and possibly diet. This is often referred to as a person's arousal level. The final consideration is that a single individual can be both hypersensitive in some sense organs and hyposensitive in others.
Sensory Processing Disorder
For a few people the differences in the way they process sensory information is so severe that it has a significant impact on their ability to cope with everyday experiences. This can have a significant influence on their behaviour as they either avoid or seek out sensory experiences. However, the question of whether someone is more or less sensitive may be more about how they actually respond. For example, two people feel equally cold but only one of them gets up and puts a jumper on. We could argue that the person with the jumper on is more sensitive to the cold but this is not necessarily true. It could be that they are less able to moderate their response to the stimulus and that is the reason why they act. This ability to regulate the degree, intensity and nature of a response to a sensory input is known as sensory modulation.
We make sense of our world through sensory input. We then make decisions about which inouts are important and which we must attend to. In individuals who are sensory hyposensitive, they are constantly receiving less powerful signals and consequently struggle to make sense of the world. This can lead to sensory seeking behaviours as they try to boost the imput signals.
In school settings there are number of relatively common behaviours in children that can be a sign of sensory seeking. This can include, for example, fidgeting; rocking on chairs; tapping (feet, pencils, fingers, etc); getting up out of their seat; twirling hair; chewing; making sounds, smelling things and looking out the window. Examples at home can include turning the volume up; putting unusual items in their mouth; sniffing smells including unpleasant ones; wanting frequent cuddling; playfighting; wanting heavy bedding and using too much of personal hygeine products.
In the average classroom there will be several children who would be more able to cope with the demands of the school if they had additional support with managing their sensory needs. The level of support required will depend on the specific needs of the child but effective intervention combats underachievement, behaviour difficulties and poor self-esteem.
An individual with sensory needs will need a specific tailored programme of support known as a sensory diet. This will recognise which senses are hypersensitive and which are hyposensitive. It will try to maintain arousal levels within an optimum range for learning, socialising and coping with everyday experiences. Advice is often sought from occupational health professionals.
Five-Minute Guide To Sensory Needs
This guide is designed for parents and staff and can be printed on A4 paper and folded to make a handy A5 leaflet giving an introduction to Sensory Needs.
Advice and strategies to support children with sensory needs can be found in the Management Section.