Autism Treatment: Sensory Processing Beyond the Five Senses
Anyone providing Autism treatment must be aware of sensory processing that occurs beyond the five basic senses. Learning about the proprioceptive and vestibular senses makes all the difference!
We all grow up learning about the 5 senses: taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. I remember seeing fun little diagrams with pictures of a hand with one sense on each finger, doing experiments where we went outside and used all five senses to learn about the environment, and playing games with friends where we asked “if you had to live without one of your senses which one would it be?” I always voted for smell.
As we’ve grown older and had children many of us have also learned that children learn best through their senses. Mothers and infants rely on touch as part of the bonding process, infants are fascinated by lights and sounds, and taste is always an exciting experience as you experiment with different foods as the little ones grow (My little guy is quite partial to fruits and anything sweet, while I have 4 opened and uneaten jars of veggies in the fridge that I try to get him to eat on a daily basis). His sense of taste definitely has preferences.
What we may not know is that there are not just 5 senses, there are 7! Who knew?
You have your basic five as we already mentioned:
Now add two essential but often overlooked senses:
Personally, I didn’t hear either of these terms until my second year of college. I didn’t know if I had just missed that day in elementary school or what, but they were both news to me, and frankly they were a little difficult for me to understand. It took a fair amount of study and hearing about them in different contexts to really get it. But now I feel like I’ve developed my own way of explaining these things in a way that most parents say makes so much more sense than what they’ve heard before. And for those who have never heard it, there may still be a learning curve, but this is will be a great starting point!
First let’s talk about proprioception. The basic definition is knowing where your limbs and body are in space. Do a little experiment: close your eyes, raise one arm up above your head, then reach up with your other arm and touch the first hand. Pretty simple right? The reason you are able to do that is because your brain can sense the location of your limbs in relation to each other.
This is something we take for granted far too much, mostly because we don’t even realize it’s happening. However you may be more grateful for it if you have ever fallen asleep on your arm at night only to wake up and have no idea where it is. You feel around the bed with your good arm until you find it then wait for the feeling to come back. In that moment you have no proprioceptive feedback. Your brain does not know where your arm is because the feedback signals are being inhibited.
One interesting note about proprioception is that the sense relies on the afferent system, which means the signals that go from your body to your brain, as opposed to efferent signals which go from your brain to your body. We may still have our efferent signals in tact without receiving the afferent signals. To illustrate this, I did a little experiment one morning when my arm was, once again, completely numb and limp. Or so I thought. I had just learned about the efferent vs. afferent signals and decided to see if I could still move my hand even if I couldn’t feel it. I concentrated and told my fingers to wiggle and wasn’t sure if it was happening (because my proprioception was gone), until i looked at my hand and saw that my fingers were, in fact, moving. To be honest it kind of freaked me out. It was such a strange sensation to tell my body to do something and to not be aware that it was actually happening. As the feeling came back into my hand (or in other words, my proprioceptive sense was restored), the freakiness wore off and all was right with the world. I once again had control over my body and knew exactly what it was doing and where it was. I like to keep tabs on these sorts of things.
So why is this important for parents to know? Well, some kids have a hard time processing proprioceptive information. This seems to be most common with children with Autism, ADHD, and of course sensory processing disorder (although not all kids with those struggles have proprioceptive processing problems, so be careful not to generalize). However if you have ever interacted with a child who seems to bump in to everything (including you), break things all the time, or appears clumsy in every sense of the word, it may not be because they want to vex you, but simply because they don’t properly sense what their body is doing. Simple as that. If you have any questions on proprioception feel free to look it up, there is a wealth of information out there, and it is essential to understand in autism treatment.
Next let’s hit on the vestibular sense. The basic definition of this one is sensing your body in relation to gravity. Now while that sounds nice, that definition didn’t really help me much for the first few years I studied this info. What helps me better understand it is to get really dizzy (or just remember the feeling of being dizzy if you’re like me and just the thought of spinning makes you green) then try to walk in a straight line. Pretty tough right? All that spinning threw off your equilibrium and makes it very hard to balance and sense your body in relation to gravity.
Some kids (or adults) with vestibular processing problems may be walking down a hall minding their own business when suddenly they feel like they are floating, walking on the wall or ceiling, or tipping over or falling when they are actually not. As you can imagine, the sensation can be quite frightening and may result in a wide variety of behaviors. Some find that rocking back and forth helps them feel more stable. For others, spinning, jumping, swinging, or any kind if excessive movement may help their body get a better sense of where they are in relation to gravity.
For those who don’t understand what’s happening for this child, they may see them as “hyperactive” or “disruptive”, when really all they are trying to do is get their vestibular system to process information the way it is supposed to. Kids are very intuitive when it comes to knowing what their system needs and trying to achieve balance, but it often ends up happening in ways that are not “socially accepted”.
So again, what do we do with that? How can we help these kids in autism treatment achieve the balance and sensory processing that they so desperately need to function in everyday life? As I mentioned, more posts will be coming with information on how to help these kids and what resources are out there. In the meantime, I strongly recommend looking up additional information on these topics. Some of my favorite books include:
Sensory Integration and the Child, by Jean Ayers
Music Therapy, Sensory Integration and the Autistic Child, by Dorita S. Berger
I hope this information has been helpful and straightforward enough that you can walk away with a better understanding of how our systems work, (and what may happen if they don’t work). Best of luck to you, and I hope to see you back to learn more about sensory integration and autism treatment!