What We Mean By “Sensory Needs”
At Sens8tional, you will probably hear us talking about ‘sensory needs’ a lot. But what do we mean by this?
To define ‘sensory needs’ we must first define ‘sensory’. Why this focus on the senses? What do our senses have to do with human behaviour and emotional wellbeing? How does understanding them help to build a child’s confidence, and to realise their own true potential?
Though we often hear about “the five senses”, humans in fact have eight senses. In addition to the five most well-known, Tactile (touch), Visual (sight), Auditory (hearing), Gustatory (taste), and Olfactory (smell), we have:
- a Vestibular sense, which makes us aware of motion, and helps to co-ordinate movement with balance,
- a Proprioceptive sense, giving us feedback from our joints and muscles to understand where our body parts are in space,
- an Interoceptive sense, keeping track of the internal state of our body, such as when we are hungry or thirsty, too hot or too cold, or any emotions we might be feeling.
All eight of these senses are constantly processing information from our environment. But they do not always do so smoothly. Everyone’s processing is a little different — some to a more extreme degree than others — and this is when sensory challenges occur.
When we witness a child “misbehaving”, or seemingly unable to perform activities that her peers do with ease, usually what we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. What we do not see is the buzz of activity within the brain and nervous system, which may or may not be running as efficiently as it could be, through no fault of the child’s. The influence of the nervous system on a child’s behaviour, then, is not to be underestimated.
“Over 80% of the nervous system is involved in processing and organising sensory input, and thus the brain is primarily a sensory processing machine.” (Ayres, 1979)
Any of our senses can be hyper-sensitive (over-responsive) as well as hypo-sensitive (under-responsive).
Hypersensitivity can lead to sensory-avoiding behaviour. For example, a child with hypersensitivity to smells (olfaction) may be overwhelmed by particular foods and so will gag or avoid that food completely. Alternatively, a child might find somebody’s perfume overpowering, which could be incredibly distracting for them.
A child with hypersensitivity to sounds (audition) may feel the same way about background noises. They may find it difficult to block out sounds in order to concentrate, such as somebody tapping a pen repeatedly, the buzzing of a lamp, or a plane flying overhead.
A hypersensitivity to touch (tactile-defensiveness) could mean that the feel of a pen or pencil in a child’s hand, or the feel of clothing tags on their school uniform is equally distracting, or even painful.
On the flipside, hyposensitivity can lead to sensory-seeking behaviour. These children are prone to seek out or make loud noises, may stand too close to others, or seem to constantly fidget. They may chew on their sleeves or other objects, constantly touch everything, or jump and climb on furniture all of the time. Hyposensitive children may be incredibly messy, crash into things a lot and have difficulty monitoring their volume.
Without an understanding of sensory processing as the root of some behaviours, sensory-seekers are often ostracised and punished for being “disruptive”. In the same way, sensory-avoiders may be reprimanded for their avoidance of schoolwork, or lack of participation in any activities that they find distressing.
Atypical processing can be the cause of many undesirable behaviours. What needs to be understood, however, is that these behaviours (both sensory-seeking and avoidance) are the child’s attempt to self-regulate. This means that the child is trying to help their body and mind work as effectively as possible through actions that will either make them feel calm, or make them feel alert. Either way, self-regulation is an attempt to maintain a “just right” state ready for socialising and learning.
Think about the small actions you might do throughout the day, which either bring your alertness levels up or down, such as stretching in the morning, having a hot or cold drink, humming, or chewing gum. These are all everyday examples of self-regulation.
So, returning to our original question: ‘what are sensory needs?’. A sensory need is any input a child needs to calm, or alert themselves. This could be movement (vestibular), like swinging on chairs, or tactile input, like chewing on sleeves, doodling, or ripping paper. Alternatively, a child may seek out a quiet space, daydream often, avoid physical contact, or otherwise not engage in activities that they find overwhelming.
It is important to note, too, that not all children naturally possess regulation skills. While some children may understand instinctively what it is they need to self-regulate, others may need extra help. Sens8tional aims to help parents and educators figure out how best to do this.
This is the first blog post in a series of four on the topic of ‘sensory needs’. Next we will cover the question: ‘Who has Sensory Needs?’.