Welcome to part two of our mini-series on sensory processing differences, where as promised in part I, I’ll explain a little bit about the three lesser known senses: the vestibular system, proprioception and interoception. (If you missed part one, you can find it here.)
Firstly, just a few short words on terminology. I’m using the terms sensory processing differences/disorders/issues pretty much interchangably. I believe the most commonly used formal term is sensory processing disorder, and that’s why I’ve used that wording in the title of these posts, but personally I prefer to talk about differences. Disorder is such a negative word, whereas differences in sensory processing aren’t necessarily always something negative. Being different to the average or ‘norm’ isn’t always a bad thing, is it?
You may also see people using the term sensory integration, and sensory integration disorder or issues, as an alternative to sensory processing disorder etc. My impression is that sensory integration seems to be a more popular term in the UK, possibly?
If you have any thoughts, experiences or preferences regarding the terminology, please feel free to share with us in the comments.
Now, lets get on with those three remaining senses:
6. Vestibular (Movement and balance, positioning of our body in space)
This sense is to do with balance, but also movements in any direction, whether swinging, bouncing, running or pretty much any kind of movements involving the whole body. Penguin’s differences in this vestibular sensory aspect can be seen for example in that he often seeks out swinging or rocking movements as they help him feel more calm. This isn’t so strange if we think about for example how most people would calm a baby down, or how relaxing it can be to sit in a hammock or rocking chair. But for Penguin, as for many other autistic persons, this kind of sensory input is often more of a NEED than just a pleasant pasttime. You may have seen that som people start rocking their bodies when they get stressed or agitated? That’s a way of using vestibular input to self-regulate, to cope with a stressful situation, and (hopefully) avoid a meltdown. It’s not just some random ‘annoying’ movement, but an actual purposeful sensory strategy.
As with all senses, processing issues in the vestibular system can result in both seeking and avoiding behaviours, such as for example loving or hating swings, which I wrote more about HERE in an instagram post not long ago. As I mention in that post too, the vestibular sense is also said to have strong links with the auditory system, including processing speech, though I haven’t yet found any clear explanation of how that is actually believed to work.
Children who have problems with their vestibular sense in a way that makes them avoid too much movement are often cautious about using playground equipment, going on fairground rides, or even walking up and down stairs. Penguin displays some of these difficulties too, and we are careful to give him time to feel in control of when he moves (for example going down steep stairs), and make sure to be at hand to physically support him when he needs it.
7. Proprioception (Sensations from muscles and joints of the body)
This one has made a massive difference for me to learn about, as it has really helped me understand Penguin better. There are so many things that he does which might seem a nuiscance, but which make so much more sense (and therefor become much less irritating, for the most part) now that I can see them as fulfilling a sensory need.
For example, right now he’s pacing back and forth at a high pace and with heavy feet, his heels thumping on our wooden floor. Now and then he’ll break into jumping or skipping. He’s also having some crunchy biscuits. All these things provide him with proprioceptive input, which is calming and organising for the body. We also have a weighted blanket, which can help with sleep, as the pressure from it provides that proprioceptive input he’s craving.
Chewing on things, slapping or biting oneself, wanting to spend hours on a trampoline, loving to squeeze into tight spaces etc are all signs of a sensory system which craves more input than for the average person. If you have (or know) a child who’s displaying these behaviours, please consider that they are trying to stay regulated, and that stopping them from doing one of these behaviours is quite likely to cause another issue instead (for example lack of concentration or hightened stress, which in turn could lead to anxiety, agression or meltdown).
8. Interoception (Sensing signals from our own internal organs)
This is the most recent addition to the list of senses, although of course the actual functions have always been there, they’ve just not been regarded as a sensory system until fairly recently. Interoception is all about picking up on internal signals, so dysfunctions in this system can mean that a person doesn’t really feel when they are hungry, thirsty or need the toilet. They may also experience pain differently (which is very important to know about, as it means that they can have very serious injuries or medical conditions without showing any clear signs of pain!), and can find it difficult to localise where in the body a sensation is coming from.
In Penguin’s case, this has for example meant that his toilet training happened later than for the average kid. He also needs reminding about having enough to drink, and he used to need a lot of prompting to eat, though in recent years that has shifted to the opposite issue, of him not picking up on being full. He could just keep on eating and eating, if we didn’t put a limit on it.
With regards to pain, he feels some pain for things that ‘shouldn’t’ be painful, such as cutting hair or nails, but in other aspects he doesn’t experience pain when he should, like for example when he caught his finger in a door one time, and it looked so sore but he didn’t seem to feel much himself. And one time when he was a tiny toddler, he put his hand on a plate of baked beans and started crying as he could feel burning, but he didn’t take his hand away from the beans, because his body couldn’t tell him where the pain was coming from (the beans weren’t hot enough to cause any actual burns, and of course I very quickly got his hand out of there, but it was a very confusing experience for us at the time, as this was long before we knew anything about him being autistic, and had no idea whatsoever about any kind of sensory processing disorder).
This has been a very brief explanation of the different senses and our experience of sensory processing differences. There are many more ways that sensory issues can manifest themselves, than the examples I’ve given in these two posts, so if you’re interested in learning more about this subject, here are a few resources worth taking a look at:
- The Star Institute has a great webpage explaining about different subtypes of SPD
- The Sensory Integration Network is a UK-based resource (mainly for professionals) and this page on their website gives a clear and consise overview of our 8 senses
- Books such as: Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, by Lindsey Biel & Nancy Peske, OR The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder, by Carol Stock Kranowitz. (I’ve read both of these books myself and found them super informative and really helpful!)
Thank you so much for reading. Questions and comments are as always very welcome below! x