Did you know there are actually sevensensory systems?
From Kindergarten, children are taught about the five main sensory systems: hearing (auditory), seeing (visual), smelling (olfactory), tasting (gustatory) and touch (tactile). What’s been missing are lessons about the two other major sensory systems: vestibular (movement, gravity and balance) and the proprioceptive (muscles and joints).
Understanding all seven systems is critical in helping children living with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) function effectively both at home and at school.
Here’s a short breakdown of all the systems and how SPD interferes with how each functions:
Auditory: This is our sense of hearing. It involves not just what we hear but how we hear and how we interpret sounds. (This sense is closely related to the vestibular system through the cochlear system in the inner ear.) The connection is what helps us with balance, head movement and equilibrium.) Children living with SPD may hear what you say to her but the neural connections telling her what the words you’re saying mean aren’t there. That’s why these children are often overwhelmed in crowded places or unable to concentrate on a task at hand when it’s too busy or why they cover their ears a lot or even feel dizzy.
Olfactory: This is our sense of smell. It’s actually the only sense that doesn’t need to make pit stop at a specific processing area in the brain before telling the body how to react. Our sense of smell can be a powerfully emotional experience because we often connect certain scents with memories. It affects what we’ll eat, what we’ll play with, who we’ll get close to or even play with.
Visual. This is the sense of sight. This involves everything we see but also how our brains interpret what we see. Because the eyes use muscles to adjust to light (which lets us focus on objects), it’s closely related to the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.
Gustatory: This is the sense of taste. It’s closely related to smell (think of when you have a cold and can’t taste anything.) Taste is important because it not only helps us have a good relationship with food but it helps keep toxic things out of our bodies (eg: When things taste bad, you spit it out.)
Tactile: This is the sense of touch. The skin is the largest organ on the body. This system helps us learn how to interact with the people and objects in our environments. It also helps keep us safe by understanding when things are hot, cold, soft, hard, painful or feel good. It makes us feel safe touching and being touched.
Vestibular: This is the sense that is closely connected to the cochlear system in the inner ear. It helps us feel balanced, coordinated, grounded and help us with maintaining proper head motion (Helping with vision and hearing).
Proprioceptive: This sense sends messages back and forth between the brain and the muscles and joints. This system not only tells our bodies how to move but if we’re moving, and how fast. And because it involves all the muscles in the body, it can affect speech and eating (tongue, jaw and mouth muscles), writing and hand grip (fine motor skills) and muscle tone (gross motor skills).
Many caregivers or teachers don’t understand how they can change physical attributes to the classroom (such as noise, lighting, bright pictures or patterns on the walls, the child’s desk/locker placement, etc.) but still see the child struggling. This is because children with vestibular and propriocetive issues need very specific sensory input to ‘organize’ their bodies enough to concentrate. My daughter, Jaimie, for example, needs to do heavy lifting, movement and muscle input every 60 to 90 minutes throughout her day or she’s out of sync for the rest of her day.
So you can see how understanding all seven systems is so important to helping a child with SPD function in the world around them. In addition to giving these children the input the rest of their systems need, it’s also important to get their bodies moving, grooving, lifting, dragging, pulling, pushing, jumping, rolling and anything else that connects them to their bodies
Here are some ways to get children the input they need in school:
- Do animal walks: hop like a bunny, running like a horse, slither like a snake, prowl like a lion, swim like a fish, etc. (change directions to practice vestibular-forwards, backwards, side-to-side)
- Do a treasure hunt
- ‘Heavy lifting’ like carrying tubs, moving furniture, lifting chairs at the beginning of the day, taking binders to the office, etc.
- Create activities involving a lot of visual activities like balloon volleyball, bubble games, Frisbee, or team sports like baseball;
- Use weights that increase the child’s feedback and awareness about his body;
- Games like “Simon Says,” and “Mother May I?”;
- Be sure to use sensory input regularly throughout a session to maintain spatial awareness of the body’s position and direction of movement;
- Participate in turn-taking activities with your child
- Have him do activities like lifting heavy objects to the library or around the classroom or in the school office;
- Take crunchy/chewy food breaks with Cheerios, veggies, pretzels, popcorn, fruit roll ups, licorice or gummies;
- Jobs like washing desks, erasing chalk boards, putting chairs on top of desks, helping clean up gym equipment, pushing lunch carts around the cafeteria.
- Climb on playground equipment, monkey bars, chair push-ups, animal walks, etc.