It’s National Sensory Processing Awareness Month, so let’s take this opportunity to find out more about our many senses!
We all have lots of senses; five that we all know about, sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, as well as at least three ‘mystery’ senses that we might not know so much about at all; vestibular (balance and movement), proprioception (body awareness), and interoception (awareness of what’s happening inside the body). This blog post explores these three ‘mystery’ senses in a bit more detail and provides us with practical ways to learn about them with our own children!
One of our senses is our ‘vestibular’ sense, or our sense of balance and movement. It helps us to know what way up we are, whether we are moving or still, how to experience gravity, how to maintain a position without falling. Each of us has vestibular organs situated deep within our ears and when we move our heads the fluid in these organs moves too, providing us with information about the position of our heads and bodies.
Our vestibular sense works alongside many of our other senses including proprioception (see below), sight, hearing etc. to help us feel more confident about moving in, and interacting with, our environment.
Some people can have under responsive (hyposensitive), or overly responsive (hypersensitive), vestibular systems which can mean, for example, that they either need to move constantly to get the sensory input they need or can be fearful of movement as they feel unbalanced and might fall.
A child or young person with an under responsive vestibular system might constantly fidget, rock in their chair, or need to spin, hang upside down, or move around rather than sitting still. A child with an overly responsive vestibular system might be unwilling to take part in physical games or to climb, or be wrongly labelled as ‘lazy’. They are also more likely to get travel sick.
Understanding these aspects of our vestibular system can help us to understand and accommodate the needs of a child or young person with an under or overly responsive vestibular system, allowing us to put strategies in place to support them. For example, a child with an under responsive vestibular system might find it easier to sit (and rock/bounce) on a wobble cushion or exercise ball rather than on a chair, or to stand on a balance board, while a child with an overly responsive vestibular system might prefer to sit still and be the referee or scorer in a hectic physical game.
Another of our senses is our ‘proprioceptive’ sense, or our sense or ‘awareness’ of our body’s position in our environment or space. It is the way that our muscles and joints send messages to our brains to help us understand about our bodies positioning, movement, coordination etc. It helps us to focus our movement appropriately, for example knowing that we need to apply more force when lifting a box of paper than we do when picking up a single sheet. It helps us know where our nose is if we try to touch it even with our eyes closed!
Our proprioceptive sense works alongside many of our other senses including vestibular (see above), sight, touch etc. to help us feel more confident about moving in, and interacting with, our environment. Whenever we go upstairs, carry something, stand up, sit down, bend over or stretch, we are using our proprioceptive system.
A correctly functioning proprioceptive system allows a child or young person to, for example, write with a pencil without breaking it, or to play in a coordinated and balanced way, not being too rough or too gentle.
If a child or young person’s proprioceptive system isn’t functioning as it should, they may seek additional input to their muscles and joints to help them to regulate themselves, or may actively avoid this. Proprioceptive seeking behaviours might be through rough play, or through jumping, stamping or even running into walls. It might also include kicking, biting or hitting out at others, chewing non-food items etc. Proprioceptive avoiding behaviours might include avoiding physical activities like running, jumping or climbing, preferring sitting still, avoiding touch, and being a picky eater. Even though these two groups of children might seem total opposites, they both need proprioceptive input to help them either calm or ‘wake up’ their system.
Understanding these aspects of our proprioceptive system can help us to understand and accommodate the needs of a child or young person with an unbalanced proprioceptive system, allowing us to put strategies in place to support them. For example, providing a range of physical activities that meet their needs such as through movement, applying pressure, stretches, walks, or even just some playdough to squeeze, can make a big difference.
One of our senses is our ‘interoceptive’ sense, or our sense of internal ‘feelings’. Receptors in our muscles and joints tell us where our body parts are, that’s the basis for our proprioceptive sense (see above). Interoception is a similar concept; just as there are receptors in our muscles and joints there are also receptors inside our organs, including our skin. These receptors send information about the inside of our body to our brain.
This information helps the brain to regulate our vital functions such as body temperature, hunger, thirst, digestion and heart rate. Interoception helps us to understand and feel what’s going on inside our bodies; for example we need to know if our heart is beating fast or if we need to breathe more deeply, and we are able to tell if we need to go to the toilet, or if we are hungry, full, hot, cold, thirsty, nauseated, itchy or ticklish.
If a child or young person’s interoceptive system isn’t functioning as it should, they may be unaware that they need the toilet until it is too late, or may keep eating beyond the point of being full. They may be putting their coat on when everyone else is sweltering, or be wandering around in a t-shirt in the middle of winter.
There is some correlation between our interoceptive sense and our emotions too… how we ‘feel’ is more than just about our physical state. We have sometimes unexplainable feelings about places, or people, or certain situations, that can be positive or negative; it is possible that these feeling are linked to our interoceptive system too. For example, when we experience danger, our heart rate increases, our breathing shallows, our muscles tense; not recognizing these changes may cause us not to be fearful, putting us in greater risk of harm.
Helping children and young people to regulate their interoceptive system might be as simple as reminding them to visit the toilet, or helping them to manage how much they eat or drink, or checking that they are dressed appropriately. But it might also be being sensitive to how they respond to people, places, and situations; sharpening our own awareness of these things so that we can support them better.
So, I hope you’ve found it interesting to explore our three ‘mystery’ senses during National Sensory Processing Awareness Month, understanding them, yourself, and your children better!