Sensory Issues – Our 7 Senses

Most of us are familiar with the 5 senses, but we also have 2 other senses that are less well known: these are the sense of movement (vestibular sense) and the sense of body awareness (proprioception).

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Our senses provide us with information to make sense of the world, and for most of us, most of the time, they work so well that we take them for granted. However, many people with autism seem to have sensory difficulties at least some of the time, some have sensory challenges a lot of the time, and some may find it difficult to integrate the information from the different senses.

Each of the 7 senses may become over-sensitive (hyper-) or under-sensitive (hypo-) to stimulus, e.g. a child who is hyper-sensitive to light may turn the lights off in class; conversely a child who is hypo-sensitive to light may turn all the lights on (this can be a difficult situation if both children are in the same room!).

For some children who are hyper-sensitive, the sensory stimuli may actually cause pain. If you are finding it difficult to intellectualise hyper and hypo-sensitivity, let me suggest that most of us have experienced it first hand. For those of you like me who have ever had a hangover (or bad headache), I’m sure you understand what it means to be light and noise sensitive! And the night before the hangover, you’ve probably had a good experience of having difficulty with your sense of movement (trying walking along a straight line), or your body awareness (how did you miss your mouth with that drink?). If you don’t drink, then think back to childhood when you spun on the merry-go-round so much that you had similar difficulties.

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The thing to realise is that for most of us, these sensory difficulties are mostly short-lived, and usually under our control. If you are autistic and are hyper-sensitive to noise, it can be something you live with every day, and certain noises may actually be painful to you. If you are hyper-sensitive to visual stimuli, then it can be very difficult to stop yourself from being distracted by everything around you – even the way the dust dances around in the sunbeams – and concentrate on what you’ve been asked to do.

Sensory difficulties may have a dramatic effect on behaviour. Watch your child to see how they react to sensory stimuli – e.g. do they seek certain stimuli, or do they react negatively to it. With a bit of detective work, you may be able to understand their behaviour a bit better.

This free resource from Falkirk Council explains sensory issues in a straightforward and useful way, with lots of practical strategies. I highly recommend it.

If you’re looking for a great book written with parents in mind, check out Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with SensoryProcessing Issues

available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk