Our senses and sensory processing

Behavioral Health Services

Written by: Vivian Hazell, MSE, LPC Lead Autism Therapist with Agnesian HealthCare

Points to consider:The only way that any person knows what is going on both internally or externally is how they gather information through their senses (central nervous system) and how they interpret that information with their brain to come up with an adaptive response.

1.  The seven senses that are responding to occurrences are:

  • Auditory
  • Vestibular – (movement and balance)
  • Proprioception – (use of muscles, and how we know where we are in space)
  • Touch
  • Vision
  • Taste
  • Smell

2.  The process goes something like this:

  • The nervous system registers some thing just happened and the brain orients to it to figure out the following.
  • What’s this? Where’s it coming from? Is it something familiar? Am I in danger? Should I ignore it, etc.
  • Once the brain thinks it has a reasonable answer to this “occurrence,” it creates a response.

3.  When a person’s brain is neuro typical or functioning w/out stressors, the person interacts with their environment efficiently, makes a helpful interpretation of the “occurrence,” and develops a strong foundation that helps bring success in movement and language skills, and appropriate social/emotional behavior.

4.  Many individuals with autism have a unique interpretation and response to sensory input. When there is a unique interpretation of the ‘occurrence’ or a pattern of unique interpretations, the person can experience motor delays, tactile defensiveness, learning disorders, social or emotional difficulties, speech and language deficits or attention disorders.

5.  How do we know if a person has a unique interpretation and response to sensory input and why does it matter? Well, a person with unique sensory interpretation seem to do “odd things” or refuse to do things, or just act “differently” than others in the same situation or that are the same age. It matters because their unique interpretations limit their experience in a shared world and their success in the aspects of quality of life such as health, work, play, friendships, achievement, etc. If we don’t recognize their unique interpretation, we can’t expect them to overcome the obstacles their unique interpretation creates.

6.  How do we make sense of what they need? First we observe them to recognize what makes them “stand out in a crowd.” How do they move their bodies differently, what habits do they have that seem to get in the way, or how are they trying to ‘cope’ with the world when they are asked to move, or stop moving, attend to a shared focus, talk or be quiet, start or stop, etc.

7.  How do we make sense of what we’ve observed? There are a number of assessment tools that help look at the various areas of sensory input and the characteristics of dysfunction such as they might respond as if the input is too little or too much compared to neuro-typical individuals. The interpretation of the assessment tools help create a sensory profile of the individual at the particular moment in time they are being assessed.

8.  Once we have a profile, what’s next? We want to respect how they are currently responding to the world and supportively build skills for altering their way of responding to sensory input. We can use approaches that focus on organizing activities that will improve or modify the sensory skills and awareness. We can also help the person get ready for what’s coming next by getting their body to the level of energy that the next task requires.  If they are at a really calm level and we need them to get ready to move around or relocate we can use alerting activities. If they are too revved up for what’s coming next we can use calming activities to decrease high level of alertness and bring back to a calmer state.

So when you see someone covering their ears when you run the vacuum or chewing on the necks of their shirts or shirt cuffs, or stressed to distraction over getting their hair cut or washed, or using a very loud voice all the time, or always wanting to lay on the floor, you are witnessing unique responses to sensory input.  Occupational therapists and agencies, such as Agnesian Beyond Boundaries of Autism, can help families understand these unique responses to sensory occurrences.

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