Making sense of the senses
January 18, 2018
Some of you are sitting there reading this blog and you are clicking a pen, tapping your feet, chewing gum, have music gently playing in the background or… well, you get my point. Did you know that you are using sensory processing skills in order to keep yourself focused, grounded and on task?
As adults, most of us have learned what sort of sensory ‘things’ we need to do or have around us to keep us feeling a certain way. We know what we need to bring our energy up and we know what we need to help bring it back down again (I bet at least one of you said coffee for both of these). The young people who come to stay with us at Temple always need some help in order to find their ‘things’. In fact, a fair number of young people probably need help with this.
This past week, some of our Temple team members had the opportunity to take part in a Sensory Processing Training offered by our occupational therapist, Katrina Lorenz. Katrina works closely with many young people at Wood’s to help them and their staff learn how to meet young people’s sensory needs. While it won’t be possible to compress that whole training into this blog, hopefully I can give you a crash course and maybe even pique your interest.
Let’s start with some of the terms and concepts used in sensory processing. To start, there is arousal. Arousal simply means the state of the nervous system in relation to the level of alertness a person is experiencing. We could be in a high state (imagine having 4 or 5 cups of coffee in a short period of time) or we could be in a low state (warm blanket, dim lights, television on low). Arousal theory tells us that in order for us to function well in our environment, we need to be at an optimal state of arousal (neither too low nor too high). Something to note is that trauma can impact sensory processing. If trauma occurs during childhood, brain development can be impacted. The brain’s job is to make associations between different sensory signals allowing learning to occur; however, trauma can cause false associations, as all new experiences are seen through the lens of past experiences. While for some, the smell of vanilla could be calming, to others it might remind them of a person in childhood who would yell at or hit them, and cause a very different reaction than expected. Hyperarousal (high arousal) and dissociation (low arousal) can be common for children who have experienced trauma.
Our senses are what directly control our state of arousal. Most of us know the common senses: sight (visual), hearing (auditory), taste (gustatory), smell (olfaction) and touch (tactile). There are two other senses that effect our arousal too: balance (vestibular) and body position (proprioception). Sometimes, we only need to think of these simply, in terms of smell or light level. Other times, we should be thinking about more complex ways to engage the senses, like going for a walk or reading a book.
One thing that Temple does really well is being aware of the environment and ensuring our clients reach an optimal state of arousal. At Temple, we put a lot of time and thought into planning the layout of the program. We make sure the young people’s bedrooms are calm, low arousal places for them to be. The program’s common areas are kept tidy, visual and tactile, and will have a mix of hardwood and carpet flooring, good lighting, and will either have no aroma or one that we know the young person finds appealing (olfaction).
Most clients also have a ‘chill space’. This is a room specifically designed to have items that both raise and lower a young person’s arousal. Staff can identify which items to include on their own, thanks to the help of Katrina’s training. Often this is a process of trial and success. There are also specific specialty items identified by Katrina that some young people might have. These items, such as a weighted blanket or therapeutic brush, should only be used when instructed to do so by a therapist trained in how and when to use them. Temple staff are also attuned to their clients, and are able to tell when the client has reached sensory overload and when they need a break, and which room they should go take the break in.
Now, about that pen you are clicking… or whatever it was that helped you stay focused enough to read these 750 or so words. Think of all the sensory skills you went through to get to that one. Or, think of the skills you once had and have since dropped. What worked once doesn’t always work… and won’t necessarily work again in the future. The important thing to remember is you have the ability to adapt and change. Some of the young people in our lives don’t have that skill yet. Fidget spinners might have been a fad, they might have been annoying and they might have even been a waste of money, but one thing they certainly were, was a sensory tool. Not everyone needs a ‘chill space’, but we all need those tricks and tools to help us.