So what are sensory issues? This is something that is actually pretty common in children. Two studies found that between 1 in 6 and 1 in 20 children suffer from sensory issues. For children with autism, most of them have some sort of sensory issue, but the majority of children who have sensory issues do not have autism. But what are sensory issues and how does it affect children’s development? For me, I had never heard of sensory issues before we had Ruby, but since we have learned this is something she struggles with I have began to learn.
Everyone has a sensory system, that is how we interact with the world, through sight, touch, smell, taste, and sound. With our sensory system, there are actually three more, feeling where our body is in space (if I close my eyes can I tell if I am standing up, laying down?), where my body is (if I close my eyes can I feel where my foot is?), and what are body feels inside (happiness, hunger, having to go to the bathroom). All of these work together to give us information about the world, ourselves, and how we feel about things in the world. They all have fancy names in the research world (click here for more information on the sensory system). So what does it look like when a child doesn’t process this information the same as others?
Sensory Processing Disorder
A person who has “sensory issues” processes the information they get from the world differently (read more about it here). The brain may have trouble organizing the information it is getting in one or more of the sensory systems. That sounds pretty confusing. Let’s start with the auditory system. Let’s say a child is sitting in class and is trying to listen to the teacher. For a lot kids if a pencil drops, or a student shuffles papers their brains tell them that these sounds are not important, the teachers voice is so they focus on that. For children with issues with auditory processing, their brains may not be able to distinguish between what is important and not important. This means that they give equal attention to the teachers voice and the pencil dropping, which makes it harder to focus and more likely to miss important information during class. The volume they hear things may also be different. That’s why you see some kids wear sound deafening earmuffs. The sounds may be louder to them and if their brains can’t decipher between the important and unimportant sounds, they are just being constantly bombarded. So the earmuffs can help to reduce the intensity of the sounds and allow them to focus more.
Let’s look at identifying what’s going on in the body. What is a child could not feel they are hungry as others do? I think my daughter may struggle with this. She won’t act hungry until she is in starvation mode and then she has to eat right then, and I mean right then. Tearing through wrappers, continuously scavenging for food. She may not be recognizing when she starts to get hungry until she is starving and then it is almost a panic. This happens almost every day just before I have dinner ready of course.
One more example here, the visual system. Many of us are visual people. We learn through our visual system, our mood can be affected, it can trigger emotional memories (pictures of lost loved ones). All in all it is an important system. When we enter a room that is clean and organized we get an “I feel so peaceful and calm” feeling. When we enter a room that looks like a tornado went through it, we may feel agitated, unfocused, and stressed.
For Ruby, she would get visually overwhelmed. If the toy room was messy she was less likely to go in there because, like the auditory system, she had a hard time being bombarded with all of the visual stimuli. It was hard for her to focus on one thing, or to cope with this, she would try to focus on only one thing and block everything else out. Either way, she was not in a good space to engage socially or learn anything. So my therapist suggested that I try to keep everything clean and organized to reduce the amount of visuals she would have to cope with. Yes, completely easy with three kids under the age of 5 right?! Well I tried it because even though it was hard and I was often up cleaning until 11 each night, I wouldn’t know if it would help until I tried. And guess what, it really made a difference for her!
It helped her to not get as overwhelmed and she always new where everything was so it was easy for her to find it. I also created picture labels for the bins in my toy room you can see here. You know the funny thing about the sensory system is that it changes. I had to keep up the everything clean all the time for a while, and then after a while it was a bit unsustainable due to my sanity, and when things got a little cluttered during the day, she handled it better as she got older.
So What Can I Do?
So you can begin to imagine how normal development of a child can be changed if they are processing the world differently through their senses. We want our children to reach their full potential, and that takes understanding anything that may be interfering and intentionally addressing it. There are things you can do to help children to learn how to integrate sensory information and be in the right frame of mind to engage and learn. There are books (here is one we have enjoyed), dissertations, pod casts, websites, blogs, all dedicated to this very subject. Next up, I will be discussing how to identify how children are being affected by sensory issues and what you can do to help.