Sensory starts with the senses.
Hearing, Seeing, Touching, Tasting and Smelling.
For most people those traditional 5 senses help you in your everyday life and often go unnoticed.
(Most of us are familiar with the 5 senses, but we also have 2 other senses that are less well known: these are the sense of movement (vestibular sense) and the sense of body awareness (proprioception). I’ll have to write a separate post about those, or I’ll end up writing a book! But I encourage you to google and check them out if you’re unfamiliar!)
Some things you may not really notice are things like the fan in the corner of the room, the light above your head, the tag on the inside of your shirt, the gum your chewing or the candle your burning in the other room. You know they’re there… but they are JUST there. They don’t bother you or disrupt your daily life.
Then they can also be so much more than that.
A single smell can take you to a specific memory.
A single taste can make you reminiscent of old times.
A single song can send a tingle up your spine…
And a single picture can make your heart break or swell with love.
For people on the Autism Spectrum… those senses can be much, much more intense. Both in a good way and in a not so good way.
My three boys and I have sensory issues.
There are generally two types… Sensory Seekers and Sensory Avoiders.
People don’t have to be one or the other either, you can be both in different areas. Seeking smells but shying away from noises, etc.
I LOVE compressions… I actually like people laying on me. Weird, I know. I love the feeling of pressure on me. When I was a kid we had that game called “dog pile”. I loved that game. I loved the feeling of the all over pressure on my body (back then I didn’t know why… it wasn’t until this past year that I’ve realized I’m on the spectrum). My boys are the same way. They love tight bear hugs and weighted blankets. So that would be a “Sensory Seeking” behavior.
I HATE certain fruits and vegetables. My boys are the same way. We tend to love crunch carbs (all three of us). So, the crunchy aspect would be a Sensory Seeking Behavior and then not liking the fruits and veggies would be a Sensory Avoiding behavior. I don’t like the insides of pickles or cucumbers. I don’t like tomatoes… I can’t stand the consistency of them. It literally makes my skin crawl! Jaxson and Tyler seem to be the same way, where Justin is a little more accepting of different textures as far as food goes. Clothes- Tyler and I HATE the feeling of wearing clothes when we’re hot and sweaty. It doesn’t bother Justin at all. I cannot STAND the feeling of saltwater on my body… I feel sticky and gross, but it doesn’t seem to bother the kids.
So just because someone has an issue with one texture, doesn’t mean it’s all textures or all people on the spectrum.
Sensory also can be a HUGE contributing factor in behaviors like meltdowns. The way I like to look at meltdowns are like building blocks… the higher the blocks go, the closer they are to falling over. So we start with one block – the lights above your head can seem much brighter to those on the spectrum and might make them squint or hurt their heads. Two blocks – the noise level around them can seem much louder, so they can’t concentrate or hear you over the noise. It also might hurt their head/ears. Three blocks – the perfume or cologne someone is wearing can seem way way too strong. I can’t even walk through the perfume area in a store, I have to walk around or hold my breath. It’s like I can smell ALL of them way too much and it’s overwhelming. Some people may even gag (like if you took a big ol’ whiff of your garbage). Four blocks – if the temperature is too hot or too cold… you might not need a jacket but to someone on the spectrum it feels like they’re freezing. Or you might only need to wear shorts to help with the slight rise in temperature where someone on the spectrum feels like it’s scorching. Five blocks – the tag on the inside of their shirt or the seem on the inside of their sock feels like its rubbing their skin raw. Six blocks – maybe their blood sugar is low because they didn’t eat breakfast… and now they feel like they’re going to pass out when you might just feel like you’re hungry. Seven blocks – maybe they’re nonverbal or “pre-verbal” but still can’t communicate their wants and needs… so the language barrier makes it hard to explain how they feel.
Depending on the severity of any of those (or other) sensory factors… or any frustrations that’s happening or has happened before hand, could make the tower topple.
Sometimes Sensory Seekers just enjoy certain things… One of my boys LOVES the feel of silk. So if I leave my bra out, I’ve caught him rubbing it on his cheek. Or his weighted blanket has a minky side… he’ll just run his hands up and down the blanket for half an hour. Tyler loves sand (the one who has the BIGGEST issues with food textures)… he will sit and play in sand for HOURS. Tyler also seeks noise… we went to an Autism Awareness event where they had those HUGE speakers, and he practically ran over and put his ear on it while it was playing music!
But sometimes Sensory Seekers brains or bodies tell them that they’re not getting enough of something, which makes them crave certain things or may end up in behaviors. There’s a common phrase passed around the Autism Community and it’s absolutely true. “Every behavior has a reason.” Some people have problems sitting still. I can sit through a whole movie that I’m really into with no problems at all… but then I went to a Wrightslaw Conference and after about 45 minutes I was jiggling my leg, flicking my hands, tapping my pencil… anything I could do to help my body calm down. As soon as I was able to stand up (we had a break), I bounced on my toes a bit, shook out my arms and I was totally fine again. I sat down feeling “normal”. But after another 45 minutes my skin began to crawl again. And it wasn’t like I wasn’t interested in what the speaker was saying! I LOVED it! I wanted to hear everything, which is why I didn’t just stand up and take a break. Not that I could completely concentrate while feeling like that anyway.
For some reason my body told me I needed to get up and move. I explain it like you have to pee. When you drink way too much… and really really REALLY need to go, that you’re dancing around, twisting your legs, NEEDING to go to the bathroom, but you have to wait… when you FINALLY get to go it’s one of those “ahhhhh” moments. Everything is okay again. That ahhhh moment for us is being able to get up and walk around again… to move. Make sense?
So when I see Tyler (and even Justin gets that way, though he’s not as “bad”), when he starts bouncing around like crazy or climbing or getting angry and upset, I try to find ways to help his body and his brain get back to “normal”. Each kid is different, and each technique won’t work on everyone. Some things I use with my kids are joint compressions, bear hugs (but some kids don’t like to be restrained so short hugs for a second or two over and over can be better than squeezing them for a longer period of time), brushing, weighted objects like blankets, toys, lap pads. Trampolines are AWESOME, we have a mini one that is kept in our living room. Therapy swings can help… tickle monster (until you think they might pee their pants!!). Swimming. Climbing… Depending on the circumstance and area you’re in some of these can be more discreet than others to help in classrooms.
There is just SO much of our lives that is affected by sensory, ESPECIALLY in the Autism Community, that I could go on and on and on. And believe me… I really could, I tend to be a bit wordy. But one of the main things you need to do is figure out where you or your kids or grandkids or students, are either sensory seeking or sensory avoiding and help them either avoid or get the input that they need in order to FEEL “normal”. So that they can do what they need to do. It’s not always easy, but once you figure it out, it can make things like: trips to the store easier. You’ll know – okay the lights are too bright – they can wear sunglasses. The people and noise are just way too much for them, we can buy noise cancelling headphones. They are CLIMBING the walls and won’t sit down to do this puzzle with me, let’s do 10 minutes on the trampoline first so that they’ll be able to focus. You can’t sit at your desk and do… whatever you do for longer than 45 minutes, let your boss know what’s going on… take a 3-5 minute break, go to the bathroom jump like crazy and then go sit back down.
“Knowledge is power.”