I recently attended a workshop that provided an overview on sensory processing and its impact on secure attachments in children. “The capacity for engagement and attachment has to do with the ability to modulate and process sensory experiences as well as coordination of simple motor activities.” (DeGangi, 2000). Considering how we use our senses to function throughout the day, its essential to look at what drives a child’s behavior from a ‘sensory lens’.
“Sensory integration is the ability of the central nervous system to organize and process input from different sensory channels in order to make an adaptive response.” (Ayers, 1979). Many of us can name our five senses: taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. What we often forget is the senses of movement and body awareness. The first of our sensory systems to develop is our auditory system, which helps us give appropriate meaning to sounds in the environment. Gustatory processing, which provides us the sense of taste, and the olfactory processing, which provides us our sense of smell, are strongly related. Touch receptors assist us to discriminate the quality of objects, such as if they are hard, soft, sharp, or dull. These receptors also assist us in processing our need for protection and alert us to danger. Our vestibular system allows us the sense of movement. It provides information about how fast we are moving, the direction we are going, our relationship to gravity, and how close or far away we are from something. Our proprioceptive system allows us our sense of body awareness. This helps us understand where we end and where space begins, as well as how much of our own force is necessary for an activity. Finally, our visual system allows us to combine what we see with our other senses to understand our world.
Matching children’s sensory needs and then labeling what they are doing can help a child put meaning to and organize their behavior to their sensory stimuli. As parents and caregivers of children, the duty as a co-regulator becomes very important. If we become skillful at identifying the sensory need and providing the appropriate sensory experience or input, we may spend much less time attempting to manage the child’s behavior. One of several strategies that can promote the process of matching sensory experiences to sensory needs involves providing an appropriate environment for a child. A child can benefit from an environment that is consistent in its visual inputs, auditory inputs, as well as scent. This type of environment allows the child an opportunity to ‘chill out’ from sensory input as a result of the predictability of something consistent. However, this familiar environment should also be matched with opportunities for environments in which all senses can be explored when their sensory needs are indicative of such. Providing a place for movement is important. Having places for kids to jump, bounce, run, or roll can be helpful in meeting sensory needs. On the other hand it is equally important, to allow for the creation of small spaces when, for instance, a child who is having difficulty with his or her awareness of where they are in a room may benefit from an activity such as fort building that would accommodate this sensory need.
One of the foundations for self-regulation of our sensory world is a routine. Providing consistent structure, setting clear expectations, yet allowing flexibility can support a child’s ability to process sensory inputs. Adding movement and sensory experiences within these parameters allows for appropriate sensory experiences. For instance, a child who has difficulty with compliance of the morning routine of getting dressed or brushing his or her teeth may benefit from the addition of a wheelbarrow walk with the assistance of the parent as he or she transitions from one task to the other. This is likely much easier than managing a child who is resistant and refusing to comply, potentially due to dysregulation from the sensory perspective.
Matching tactile inputs with the sensory need is also very valuable. There are times when a child may need deep pressure and can benefit from playful wrestling. Other times, light touch may be preferred and they may enjoy having a ball rolled over them softly. There are times when children may enjoy swaddling and could benefit from a blanket roll, as they pretend to be a hot dog in a bun. Lotion massages can also be helpful for some children. In providing this sensory input, a constant firm touch is likely easier for the child to process as each time one’s hand is lifted, it becomes a new sensory process for the child. Other tactile activities that can provide sensory inputs include popping bubble wrap, molding clay, or playing with shaving cream.
One other sensory strategy that can promote regulation for a child is movement. Normal household items can be utilized in providing such sensory experiences. For instance, filling laundry baskets or totes with toys facilitates experiences where the child can push or pull, which works large muscle groups and provides resistance. Having the child move toys from one end of the room to the other can also provide a sensory experience. Children could experience light resistance in stirring things in the kitchen. Rocking and swinging are also great ways to promote movement.
It’s important to understand that not everyone processes sensory input the same way. For those of us who serve as co-regulators for children, it is helpful to develop strategies to support the child’s sensory processing. We serve as the detective in looking for the right sensory experience at the right time, for the right intensity, and for the right duration of the child’s need. Having a variety of options to provide the right experience can be helpful. As a co-regulator for the child we are one element of the many necessary for a child’s success in managing their sensory world.
To learn more about sensory processing visit www.spdnetwork.org or consult with an occupational therapist for child specific interventions, strategies and resources.
Krull, J. & Peters, S. (September, 2011). Sensory Processing Differences: A Look at the Impact on Secure Attachment. Workshop presented at the 23rd Annual ATTach Conference, Omaha, NE.
Ayers, J. (1979). Sensory Integration and the Child. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.
DeGangi, G. (2000). Pediatric Disorders of Regulation in Affect and Behavior. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.Tags: Sensory experiences, Sensory Integration
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Jody Johnson, LICSW, LIMHP, began working at Wholeness Healing Center as a therapist in 2007. Jody graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with her Masters in Social Work. She received her bachelor degree in Social Work from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
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