Those involved in teaching and caring for children and adults with exceptionalities are familiar with sensory processing challenges. Heightened or even diminished sensitivity to stimuli reaching the five senses of hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste cause either avoidance or seeking of certain sensations. Often, occupational therapy (OT) is recommended for sensory integration – a common route to help individuals cope with their sensitivities.
Some examples of sensory processing issues include:
- Excessive preference for particular textures of clothing or food.
- Experiencing a panic attack when the school bell rings.
- Or in contrast, having no response upon hearing a fire alarm.
- Covering eyes when faced by bright lights.
- Anger at getting a waft of a certain scent.
- Hitting, screaming, throwing tantrums or isolating oneself in reaction to an unpleasant feeling.
While it is common for most of us to have a preference or dislike towards certain sensations, it is the level of discomfort the sensitivities cause to a person’s life and mental health that warrants concern. It is believed that the neurological pathways in the brain are different in people with sensory processing issues.
More recently, researchers are pointing towards humans having EIGHT senses and not just the five as we traditionally believe. This may come as relief to those experiencing sensitivities and might help make further sense of their symptoms.
The additional three senses are the vestibular, proprioception and interoception systems. The vestibular and proprioception systems are common in therapist circles. The concept of interoception is the unexpected guest.
The vestibular system relates to our sense of balance and movement. It guides our position and orientation in space and helps us stay upright.
The proprioceptive system relays information to our brain about how we perceive the movement of our joints and muscles. Feelings of body weight, muscle mass and joint rotations fall under the realm of this system.
Leave alone the sixth sense, we are now in the presence of the eighth sense. Interoception is often neglected and relates to the inner physiology or our sensation of internal organs. It detects feelings of hunger, thirst, elimination, heart rate, respiration etc.
There is increasing knowledge about the eight senses and the role they play in those with sensory processing problems. However, research is compounded by the relativity of each person’s experience and the sheer perplexity of ‘making sense’. People also avoid discussing abstract sensory experiences for fear of dismissal and mockery.
It has never been easy to verbalise our sensations. It is all the more difficult for those challenged with learning, developmental and intellectual issues. This only highlights the need to be more sensitive, compassionate and understanding towards those whose struggles are hard to make sense of.