It’s all a bit confusing when it comes to sensory differences or sensory processing disorder. Unless you’re an occupational therapist, you might find yourself scratching your head when you hear terms like sensory seeker, sensory avoider or sensory under responder. In general the terms are interchanged quite a bit, but sensory integration disorder can be summed up as a sensory processing challenge. Our five senses: taste, touch, sound, sight and smell as well as our sense of body awareness and our sense of motion work to help us understand our environment. For some individuals (aka neuro typical individuals) that process is quite efficient. And for others, well, not so efficient.
Working with children with special needs, and in particular developmental needs, can heighten sensory challenges because as physical demands increase so do our sensory regulation needs. You can say the same for learning. As the demands to focus and concentrate are increased, the need to integrate all that information increases as well. And, such demands can leave little Johnny or Big Ben quite frustrated, not to mention their teachers, parents and therapists.
Lets take a quick look at some of the major sensory differences and how they might impact the ability to process, learn, move, socialize or function.
- Hyper Sensitive. Individuals who are over responsive or hyper responsive to stimuli, may over react to sounds, sights,
smells, taste, texture or motion. This is someone who is easily startled from a noise, sick after a car ride, is sensitive to lighting, prefers bland foods, refuses to wear clothing with seams or tags and may be repelled by certain smells. An individual with such a heightened sense may be overly anxious as well. Using calming tools such as special lighting, controlled sound and softer textures can make a world of difference allowing them to engage without becoming overwhelmed. Preparing them in advance for what is about to happen or sticking to a schedule can help ease their anxiety and over responsiveness as well.
- Under Responsive. Did you not hear me? A person who is under responsive will often present himself or herself with low muscle tone and almost appear floppy. They tend to slouch. They are not alert at times. They may not hear their name, notice the lunch bag on the floor or remember their homework. Using alerting tools such as stimulating lights, heavy sounds, rhythm, charts, visual reminders and movement, can help them stay alert, focused and on task.
- Sensory Seeking. This is your monkey person. Sensory seekers love to touch, pull and tug. They love to move and their bodies crave it. They like to get messy, to cook, to clean and to play. But all of this is often at everyone else’s expense. Using eye-hand coordination, calming effects and an organized exercise or sport can keep them engage and centered.
So which category do you fit into? Chances are you are bits and pieces of each at different times. You may be startled by noise, yet need a visual reminder to stay on task. Yet you may also love to play hard. The key is to recognize each individual’s sensory differences and needs to help them advocate and accommodate as needed. A great sensory diet can do wonders to keeping everyone regulated and happy!