In my last article, I talked about how the sensory environment has an influence on a child’s development and also on how changing the environments you offer them can change their behaviour. I also mentioned that for children with particular needs, an attention to their sensory experiences may be especially pertinent. In recent years, you have probably experienced a rise in the number of children presenting within your setting with sensory needs. This is something settings across the UK are reporting, so you are not alone.
There are many causes for this rise, not all of them are known. We are getting better at recognising and diagnosing sensory conditions, so it is not that they are actually on the rise, just that we are spotting them now when once we did not. This is a great piece of progress which means these children stand an improved chance at thriving within education and life.
Another cause of the change is our different experiences of early life. In my last article, I talked about my own unusual sensory experiences growing up and said that these have been foundational to my identity and cognitive abilities. We are currently meeting a generation of children who have grown up with a lot more screen time in early life than did previous generations. These children will be equipped with skills related to those screens and doubtless, those skills will be relevant to the future they will grow into. But the time spent on screens is time not spent elsewhere, so they have lost a set of skills that previous generations would have acquired by the same point in their lives.
All of our early sensory experiences underpin the wiring of our brains in a foundational way, and it is clear how some early experiences track into later educational skills: mark-making becoming writing, for example. For other early experiences, the link is not clear until it is broken.
Shrinking outdoor play spaces
For example, some of the foundational experiences to our vestibular sensory system (there are more than five senses, if you’re curious to learn more download the free leaflet The Sensory Projects Seven Senses here) are those associated with rough and tumble play. How often when you were growing up did you roll down a grassy bank? How often do today’s children do this? How much time did you spend on a swing? How much time do today’s children spend swinging? Did you spin until you were dizzy and then run in a wiggly line? How often do today’s children do this? As well as screens, our children’s access to these experiences has been restricted by the shrinking of outdoor play. Where my grandfather’s generation played in an area around their home that was as far as they could cycle in a day, my parents’ generation played closer to home. I played in the street and in the nearby fields (or, in my case, boat yards), yet my own child plays in the garden. The space is shrinking and with it, the movements within it.Your vestibular system informs your understanding of movement and balance. You need it in order to sit still and focus. You need it to sit on a chair, to stand in a line, to sit on the carpet without sprawling and bumping into your friends. Our children start in our settings at a vestibular deficit which can appear like a sensory processing disorder, but it is actually more of a delay on what we expect rather than an actual disorder.
Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder
Be clear – Sensory Processing Disorder itself exists separate to differences in sensory processing experienced by children with different upbringings (another one to consider is children in your setting who may have had to spend a prolonged period of time in hospital when they were born or during their early years – this is another very different sensory environment for the brain to develop in). Sensory Processing Disorder is a physical difference in the brain. For a super simple explanation, imagine each of your senses has a volume control on it and in some people’s brains those controls are set to unhelpful levels and in other people’s brains those controls are not set, rather they are going haywire – fluctuating up and down and making focus incredibly difficult.
Sensory Processing Disorder often co-occurs with autism, so if you have young people on the autistic spectrum or suspected of being on the spectrum, it is highly likely that they are experiencing some degree of sensory processing difficulties – considering this may help you to account for some of the behaviours you witness.
Being sensitive to sensory needs
Whatever the cause of the difference, be it a disorder or a delay, understanding and supporting these children is critical. Punishing someone for difficulties with their sensory processing is akin to punishing a person who uses a wheelchair for not being able to walk. To do so is to heap mental health challenges onto someone already facing significant physical challenges. With the person who uses a wheelchair, we have something tangible that we can see which reminds us of their differing needs from their peers. With people with neurodiverse conditions and sensory needs, however, there is nothing to see so they are all the more vulnerable to the secondary disabilities that come about through the misunderstanding of their primary condition.
Think sensory and be extra vigilant for these young people in your care.
If you would like to explore more about Sensory Processing Disorder you could do no better than to start with the wonderful array of free informative films on Youtube provided by Sensory Spectacle – an organisation specialising in the lived experience of Sensory Processing Disorder.
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, Trainer, Author, TEDx speaker and Founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and diverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna’s books Sensory Stories for children and teens and Sensory-being for Sensory Beings sell globally. She has a further five books due for publication within the next two years, including four children’s books.