Posted in Autism, Speech and Occupational Therapy

Blog #30~ 7 Senses of the World

Blog #30~ 7 Senses of the World

This week I want to expand more beyond the one aspect of “stimming” which I wrote about last Monday.  I want to dive in deeper into the sensory processing machine.  Admittedly, this subject has always turned me on.  Over the weekend Nick and I attended the NADS (National Association for Down Syndrome) Retreat that targets a special group that deals with more than just Down syndrome.  The hot topic was Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) was formally called Sensory Integration Disorder.  Katie Frank, MHS ORT/L who works at UIC Family Clinic in Chicago was our presenter who outlined a summary for us.  Thanks Katie for shedding more light to this topic.  Here is my perspective about this subject.

In a nutshell, SPD happens in the central nervous system.  Imagine the pathway from the brain to the 7 senses as a superhighway.  We actually do have 7 senses which include sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and two others.  No one talks about the other two senses, but they are so important. They are movement-based senses and are known as Proprioception (feedback from the muscles and the joints) and Vestibular Processing (feedback from movement of the head which tells us whether we are right side up or down in orientation.)

When a person has SPD, the flow is disjointed and the brain is unable to do the job of organizing sensory messages. Imagine a superhighway… You know that wide solid blue line on the map that flows effortlessly at 70mph+.  That is how the messages should transmit from the brain to the body. But what if it looks like the tiny grey line on the crumbled map you are trying to unfold and read.  That crooked road that breaks off and leads you into a desolate farm land area trundling at 15 mph…… THAT is SPD!  A formal diagnosis cannot be given by an occupational therapist but they can do assessments and make recommendations to a doctor.  The diagnosis is given when the problems impact the ability for a person to function in daily life.

Now that I have the scientific stuff laid out, the rest will be some concrete examples of what having SPD can look like and what supports can be put in place to help a person who has these issues.  There are three types of sensory modulation problems:

Over-Responsive (formerly known as Hyper sensitive) a person may avoid touching, sights, sounds, smells and certain tastes as they register them too intensely.  If you have ever seen a child with autism walking in a noisy venue like the mall with headphones on or their hands over their ears they are most likely trying to block out the noise for this reason. Their threshold of handling stimuli is much lower. I picture the character of Cameron Diaz’s brother in the movie “Something about Mary.”  He sported headphones all the time and banged his head when confronted with too much stimuli.  For Nick it’s not sound but rather the sense of touch when it comes to haircuts and toenail trimming (see Blog #22~  Grooming 101 for specific information about this topic.)

Under-responsive (formerly known as Hypo sensitive) is where a person may take longer to feel input, aka a sensory disregarder.  They may be unaware of the feeling of messy face or hands and not recognize touch or the feel of an object being dropped.  This person may be more socially withdrawn and may need coaxing to get engaged into the world.

Sensory Seeking   a person goes out of their way to find more input in their world.  They crave stimulus.  This for the most part IS Nick’s world.  🙂 Often when he walks his feet will hit the ground loudly.  His “heavy walking” as we have termed it is seeking extra feedback.  If there is a puddle he will step hard into it to get the splash to seek input.  He chews on inedible objects in particular his sleeves.) Nick also likes to push buttons on the phone intercom, microwave and often turns up the volume on the TV to 96!  He delights in turning on the water faucets full blast.  So you see he is looking for more input in various ways. Check out Blog # 3~ “Getting your Goat” to get a complete picture and list of things that he has gotten his hands on and dumped out.

So knowing the types of Sensory Modulation is all fine and dandy. But what can be done to address these problems?  That is where the Sensory Diet comes in.  An occupational therapist can assist with putting supports in place to help with this.  In a typical day we all strive to stay at a certain level of function where the keel sails evenly through the water.  Not too hyped up or sluggishly dragging, right?

If a person is under-responsive it is necessary to include “alerting activities” which will give them a boost.  These might include bouncing, jumping, hanging from monkey bars.   In Nick’s day he may need to take a motor break and go jump on the trampoline or get on a swing to rev him back up.  Using a special nubby cushion can help keep a person alert while working at a desk.

Organizing activities  can also help a person who is having trouble attending to a task.  For some people it may be deep pressure or heavy work that helps.  Others may need something more oral motor related.  “Calming activities”  help decrease the sensory over-responsiveness and might include deep pressure, joint compressions, massage, gentle rocking, rhythmic movement, taking a bath, muted light, etc.  Bottom line, it depends on the individual. Some senses may/or may not be more sensitive than others.  The parent can do some detective work to see what is needed and how their child reacts then work with an occupational therapist who will tailor a sensory diet to fit their needs.

Here is a list of heavy work activities/proprioceptive activities that may help regulate a child’s arousal level, concentration, ability to sit still and attend to a task or fall asleep.

Gross Motor Activities:
Carrying objects such as groceries, animal backpacks, a fanny pack, stacking or moving chairs/books, and a full watering can/hose, basically ANYTHING with weight to it.

Thanks Kendra Convery, (Nick’s OT from California) for sending this picture of Nick in the balls. Isn’t he cute 🙂 A ball pit can awaken the senses and provide good input on their body position and balance (which addresses proprioception and the vestibular processing.)   

Deep Pressure ideas:
Wearing a weighted vest, weighted hat, or weighted shorts, wearing wrist or ankle weights, using a weighted pad on lap or across the shoulders.  It could also be something like a long door draft or even a toy snake…….


Pushing or pulling objects and activities:
Toy/regular shopping cart, laundry basket, kid’s wagon, raise/lower flag at school, tug of war rope, toy/regular vacuum, wrestling, hippity hop ball.


Sandwich/ Squishing activities:
Make a child “sandwich” between floor pillows, cushions or bean bag chair, roll child up in mat or heavy blanket as a “hot dog” – bear hugs.

Siblings and pets make great deep pressure and wrestling pals…..

Nice stereo system….. and all those cases filled with my fitness cassettes 🙂

Oral Motor Activities:
Resistive sucking using items such as through thin curly straws/krazy straws sports bottle with long straw, lollipops, blowing bubbles, sour/citrus or salty flavors can alert the mouth.

We all have aversions certain senses. It might be something tactile like tags on clothing that personally drives me nuts.  Tactile issues can be addressed with the Wilbarger Protocol technique (most known as the brushing program.) Many parents of children with autism have reported that their children have responded positively to the Wilbarger Protocol technique.  This is a brushing program that should be administered by an occupational therapist.  Reports have shown a reduction in sensory defensiveness, as well as improved behavior and interaction. Many adults with autism have also reported reduction in sensory defensiveness, decreased anxiety, and increased comfort in the environment through the use of this technique.

We did this program with Nick for many years when he was little….

Certain textures may be unpleasant or down right unbearable.  Personally I can’t stand anything globby and lumpy like tapioca pudding, cottage cheese and flan….. blech!  My sister in law, Ali cringes at anything in the green slimy family like olives, artichokes, avocados, anchovies or hearts of palm. So what is it that you can barely tolerate?  Is it tactile, a certain smell or noises? Do you love loud music or does it overwhelm you? Do you sprint to the roller coaster rides or shy away from them?

The faces say it all…. Hank looks like he is facing the jaws of death up front while Nick is experiencing pure joy!  The rest of us are somewhere in between.  That’s Ali and my niece Anna in the back on the Splash Mountain ride….. 🙂

Is there a type of clothing that you are sensitive too? What calms you….. any certain genre of music, exercise, maybe the sound of a fountain? I would love to hear from you on this.  I plan to write another story closer to the holidays when we are all bombarded by stimulus overload.  I hope this week you gained some insight into how the senses are such a huge part of how we navigate the world.  That’s what is in my noggin this week.  Take a look around your world and let me know what you see that overwelms you or helps to keep you calm. You can e-mail them to me at: tjunnerstall@comcast.net.  Cheers and see you next Monday!

~Teresa

****** News flash********** OOOOPS he did it again.  #27 Fire alarm pull over the weekend in the hotel at the NADS Retreat. 

It was like a land mind in the corridor of that hotel, how could ne not resist…. and speaking of the ultimate sensory seeking…. yup that would be Nick’s….. The rest of us are just trying to keep up! 🙂

Author:

Teresa is the mother of two boys. Her youngest son, Nick is 23 years old and has special needs including Down syndrome, autism and verbal apraxia. She is a parent advocate, speaker and writer who is currently working on the memoir of raising her son, Nick. You can follow Nick world on our Facebook page and Pinterest @Down Syndrome With A Slice of Autism. Find Nick on Instagram@ #nickdsaustism, Twitter @tjunnerstall.

11 thoughts on “Blog #30~ 7 Senses of the World

  1. Love this post. Max is sensory seeking most of the time. It’s like he’s doing everything so intensely. We laughed at ST last week, because the therapist kept telling him to put the toy ‘in’ the basket. And he would throw it in so hard it would bounce right back out! But he’s also over-responsive with noisy chaotic situations like restaurants. We have yet to get him to wear headphones. Sigh.
    As for me, I like a little background noise when I work/think. It keeps me calm. I can drive for hours in the car listening to the same 30 minute signing time dvd that Max is watching and get lots of thinking done. If my hubby is in the car, he will be ready to throw the dvd out the window after one play-through 🙂

    1. Oh yeah, the haircuts – forgot to mention the haircuts. Max acts like I’m sticking daggers in his eyes when the clippers come out. If he ever talks it will be interesting to see if he can describe what he is really feeling…

      1. Kristin,

        I have read from an adult on the autism spectrum that getting a haircut felt like being stabbed in the head with knives, so I guess you are spot on with the daggers comment.
        My son does much better now (he is 18 and we did sensory therapy and desensitization when he was 3 or 4 yrs old). Sometimes he will request only scissors, no clippers. If it’s a really bad day for him sensory wise, he will ask for a “haircut exchange” which basically means get him in and out as fast as you can with as little sensory overload as possible.

      2. I second that, Nick who is also 18 has gotten much better with haircuts. Do invest in a good set of clippers they give a smoother and more quiet cut. I went to Ulta and forked out and extra $30 dollars or so and it was money well spent.

    2. Yes it’s interesting that they seek input in some ways but can be overwelmed like in a loud resturaunt. Just goes to show how we can have a different reaction depending on the senses and situation. Yes some background noise is good for a lot of people. I prefer the sound of my indoor fountain while I am working to keep me calm. It sounds like the signing DVD has become “white noise” to you but not quite so for your husband. I can’t tell you how many videos (Barney in particular) that I have wanted to hurl out the window. Haircuts are brutal, did you read the Grooming 101 Blog? I address that there. Thanks for reading Kristin 🙂

    1. Yes the OT can not only look at a sensory diet to help regulate his day but also work on some of the movement both gross and fine motor. It might be worth looking into. You could also consider doing a co-treatment where the ST and OT work together say for 30 minutes before your regular speech therapy starts or just tack them together. That was another avenue we have done as well. Good luck!

      1. Thanks – we’re doing ST through Shriners Hospital and she suggested I call our care coordinator and ask for an OT eval. I need to get on that 🙂

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