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What are the Sensory Systems?

The sensory system can be a beast to understand and navigate. It can be very overwhelming to help find your child's sensory needs and ways to modulate your child's sensory system.

Let's begin with listing the sensory systems:

  1. Auditory- Sound

  2. Visual- Sight

  3. Tactile- Touch

  4. Olfactory- Smell

  5. Proprioceptive- External Body Awareness

  6. Vestibular- Balance and Motion

  7. Interoceptive-Internal Body Awareness

  8. Gustatory- Taste

I know what you are thinking...I only knew of 5 sensory systems? Our depth of knowledge about sensory and sensory processing has come a long way. The tricky part about sensory processing and understanding how a child processes input is that it is never the same between 2 children. Every child is unique and perfectly made in their own way. We must use our knowledge of sensory to empower our children to speak up for themselves and use sensory strategies to navigate their worlds easier.

How does the sensory system work:

Everyone has certain sensory preferences and certain types of sensory input they avoid. For example, when you study do you like the TV on, music on, or quiet? This is a preference that is different for each individual and can show us how our bodies process sensory input.

Sensory input is received through a sense (vision, sound...), travels to the brain to the appropriate area (vision goes to the occipital lobe), then the brain organizes what type of input it is (fight or flight) ,and then finally our body has a reaction or a "natural consequence".

Sensory Processing Disorder:

Sensory processing disorder is the ability for our body to register sensory input, and process the information in our brain to have a productive response.

A newborn is able to see, hear, and sense their body but is unable to organize these senses They are unable to judge distances or feel the shape of one object versus another. As the child is exposed to various sensory input, they gradually learn to organize them within their brain and can give meaning to them. They become better at focus in on one sensation and as a result performance improves. Their movement changes from being jerky and clumsy, to more refined, and they are able manage multiple amounts of sensory input at one time. By organizing sensations, the child is able to modulate their response and as a result they seem to be more connected with the world and in control of their emotions.

When children are efficient in their processing, appropriate responses to the environment around them occurs and is demonstrated by appropriate skill mastery, behavior, attention and self-regulation (controlling their physical activity, emotional and cognitive responses). Children can sit and attend to the important pieces of information in a classroom and therefore have a good chance at achieving their academic potential. Furthermore, the child is able to understand their body’s movement in relation to their surroundings and themselves. This allows for success in whole body (gross motor) activities. This in turns aids the social development of the child. (Kid Sense)

It is helpful to look at sensory input as if we are pouring into a glass or pouring out of a glass. (Sensory Cup) This is often why one day our children might have a good day with no big meltdowns and then the next day no matter what we do they seem to be disorganized.

Dunn Sensory Chart

Register: Rabbit

Seeker: Tiger

Sensor: Piglet

Avoider: Eeyore

Let's Describe a Tiger

This is our box A or children that are sensory seekers.

These are our children who are always seeking proprioceptive and vestibular input. The children that are "bouncing" off the walls. I often hear with our sensory seeking parents say... "I just can't keep them busy enough". For example, they go to school all day, then you take them to the park, then you ride bikes, and go to soccer practice but he still can not sit still at the dinner table. This is often our children that are bumping into walls or other friends and have a very hard time with personal space. These children are often very social and outgoing. They try to make friends in every setting although sometimes it is too much for peers to understand. They can often be very impulsive. There is worry about their safety and awareness about what is around them. Our children that are sensory seekers are very fun but can be very overwhelming for caregivers and parents.

Let's Talk About the Rabbit

This is our box A or children that are sensory avoiders.

These are our children that seem to be more reserved, quiet, shy, and need more encouragement to join in activities. They often try to avoid sensory input. The rabbit registers all the input they are given but is often very sensitive to how much and how often they get sensory input. They are over-responsive to sensory input. These children will often become very rigid with their routine and schedule; they have a hard time with unexpected changes. The more structure in their environment the more they are able to predict sensory input and it all them better modulation and decreases their anxiety. These children are often good friends and enjoy friends but can get very frustrated, irritable and rigid in certain social situations. It is important to help our "rabbits" get sensory input in a variety of ways, but they often become very aversive to input and controlling of play or social situations.

Let's Talk About the Eeyore!

This is our box D or children that are sensory passive.

These are the children that have a very "low registration". These children respond to sensory sensations much less than others and have a high threshold or tolerance for sensory input. They often don't notice input that others might notice such as others bumping into them. They might have a very high pain tolerance due to decreased sensory awareness. Our sweet children that present as Eeyore's can often lack focus, miss learning opportunities, and be easily distracted although due to their very "calm" body it is hard to see how much information they are missing. These children can often have a very flat affect and take a lot of input and interaction to get them to engage. They often are very social only in video games and have a hard time with team sports and group activities.

Let's Talk About the Piglet!

This is our box C or Sensory Sensitive Child.

These children are very sensitive to sensory input; they have a low threshold or tolerance for input. Therefore, unlike the Eeyore that who does not respond to sensory input the Piglet is very aware of all sensory input in their environment. They often cannot habituate or "get used" to sensory input; even with age or number of times they are presented with stimuli. These children often become so distracted by sensory input they can not focus and are easily distracted. They can often appear fidgety, hesitate about situations and always worried or anxious, and they can struggle with a lot of input or large spaces/groups. These children are often very gentle and sweet; just become easily overwhelmed.


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