Who has Sensory Needs?

Who has Sensory Needs?

This is the second blog post in a series of four on the topic of ‘sensory needs’. For more explanation on what sensory needs are, see our previous post.

Who has sensory needs? Well, in the broadest sense of the term, everyone does!

This does not mean we should dismiss those whose sensory differences require extra support. Diagnoses such as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), among others (Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Fragile X Syndrome, etc.), are frequently accompanied by sensory challenges. But what about those without a diagnosis?

Sensory differences vary greatly between individuals, in nature and severity. It is simply wrong to assume that we can segregate children into one of two categories: those with sensory needs, and those without. There will always be children whose neurological challenges are significant enough to disrupt their education, yet not enough to warrant a diagnosis.

In addition, there are children who are misdiagnosed with the wrong condition, or who have a condition that is never picked up on. A common example of this would be girls with ASD, who frequently fly under the radar because of better masking skills (this can, of course, happen with boys too!)

The reality is that many children will never access support for their struggles, because of subtler, and/or unidentified issues.

At Sens8tional, we see sensory differences as existing on a spectrum. As Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of The Out-of-Sync Child, has described it:

“On a bell-shaped curve of humanity, some people have a poorly integrated neurological system, some have an excellent one, and the rest of us fall somewhere in the middle”.

For most of us, atypical processing affects us only mildly, only occasionally. For others, the impact is moderate, or more severe. Because of this, all children could benefit from support at some point.

Take an example like Harry, a child with some mild auditory processing difficulties. He finds it difficult to block out background noise in order to listen to his teacher’s instructions, and struggles to hear what other children are saying during group tasks. Because of this, he is easily distractible, and perceived as “scatter-brained”.  Harry is unlikely to ever be assessed for auditory processing disorder, even though his audition affects his ability to do his work in class.

With the right support, and with a more sensory-friendly environment, (closed doors to block out noise from outside/next door, and consideration of other distractions such as noisy fans and equipment), Harry would be much more able to flourish in school.

Some children may also be able to mask or hide their struggles all day while they are at school. They may do this by staying very quiet and doing everything they are told, thereby avoiding drawing attention to themselves, or they might play the class clown, laughing and goofing around to deflect attention from their troubles completing schoolwork.

Such masking can contribute to sensory issues being missed. This is usually followed by a breakdown, or an outburst of emotion when they get home. In these cases, it is the family that bears the brunt of the child’s frustration, while their schoolteachers remain unaware of the scale of the problem. (This home/school divide can also be the other way round for some children, where parents are perplexed by reports of behavioural issues at school).

We know that challenging behaviours are most often an indicator of internal struggles, and that behind the mask there is a child who is struggling to cope. Diagnosis or no diagnosis, we want to focus more on pinpointing specific processing difficulties, so that we can support children most effectively.

Milder issues, unidentified issues, or children under stress would also benefit from our whole-school approach to supporting sensory needs. More on this in a future blog post!

Ultimately, we want to help establish an environment and a support system that minimises the struggles of these missed children. Our work is just as much for children with significant sensory dysfunction, as those with no identified special needs, who just need a little bit of extra support in stressful or challenging times.

Remember, we all have our own ways of regulating our mood throughout the day (as we saw in our previous blog), and we all have the need for certain input at different times — in times of stress, or low motivation, for instance. This is just as true of children as it is for adults.

Our approach ensures that all children, including those who might ordinarily fly under the radar, have the opportunity to receive support.

What We Mean By “Sensory Needs”

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?’.