Without even thinking about it, we are all processing huge quantities of information: from our clothes touching our skin, our muscles and joints telling us where are arms and legs are, our sense of balance telling us if we are upright, upside down, or leaning over. Our eyes, ears and noses are constantly receiving messages and send them to our brains to interpret. Our brains filter all this information without us even knowing about, tuning out the bits we don’t need and tuning into the bits we do. This allows us to get on with everyday life activities such as: noticing and adjusting how our body is moving so we can complete a novel physical activity, listening to a news report in a busy environment, or reading a newspaper when we are on a bus.
As adults we all experience ‘hiccups’ in our sensory processing and we feel overwhelmed. Imagine sitting in a traffic queue on a hot day, the radio is on, your clothes begin to feel uncomfortable, you feel restless, the children start arguing in the back seat, your mouth feels dry, the smell of petrol fumes becomes overwhelming and you end up shouting and banging your hands on the steering wheel. This is sensory overload and for a brief period you could not unconsciously tune out of unwanted sensory information.
We are not born with the ability to interpret our senses. Our brain develops this ability through engaging with everyday sensory events, particularly in childhood. Infants and young children have to learn to interpret their senses to recognise their parents face, voice and smell. Through being cared for, and later on through play, their senses are stimulated and they begin to develop their ability to plan movements and tune in and out of sensory information.
Children with learning difficulties can struggle to make sense of the information coming in from their senses due to too much or too little sensory information getting through to their conscious awareness. They may be sensory avioders or sensory seekers, or just not know when they have had enough and get really upset. Children can struggle to interpret similarities and differences in their senses or they may have difficulty with recognising the information from their muscles and joints, and sense of balance that is needed to plan movements.
Children’s Occupational Therapists can use a sensory approach to understand the underlying reasons that a child is experiencing difficulties in engaging with everyday activities and use sensory strategies to address them.