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Other people sense different things

This article is the fourth article in a series of six from Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist Joanna Grace, the activities described in each article build up to form a toolkit for celebrating difference and neurodivergence within your setting in a way that will benefit both the children and the adults. Joanna runs online training courses focused on strategies for supporting differently abled children and promoting inclusive practice. Click here for more information.

In the first three articles in this series, we have explored simple craft activities you can do with children to help them explore and understand the differences between people, and we have challenged ourselves to support those explorations using non-judgemental language to describe those differences. The impact of doing this was explored in the last article. In this article, we are going to consider sensory differences; you can explore these with children using the feelie bag activity described as ‘Feelie box’.

You may have noticed a rise in children who have sensory differences in your setting. This is a phenomenon many settings are experiencing, it’s not just you! Knowledge and awareness of sensory needs and differences have grown in recent years which is leading to greater identification and the landscape of childhood has changed, which means children coming through your settings now may have different sensory skills compared to children ten or twenty years ago. 

There is a lot of confusion around sensory differences, and that can lead to the sorts of harmful narratives we’ve been discussing through this series. So in this article, I’m going to share an analogy I find useful for thinking about sensory processing differences.

Imagine a child’s sensory systems are controlled by a set of volume controls in their brain. These are used to tune into the information in the world. If their sense organs work, they pick up the information, and if the volume is set correctly, it arrives at the brain at the perfect level for processing.

Some children are born with broken volume controls. That is to say they have a physiological difference in their brain which means that sense information comes through either too quietly for their brain to hear, or too loud for it to bear. The result of this shows in their response to their sensory environment.

Children have to learn how to operate their sensory volume controls. Actually watching a child play with a real volume control is perfect for cementing our understanding of this. At first, the sound is too quiet, so they turn it up. Only they haven’t got the fine motor control required and so they turn it far too far up and now the sound is too loud. It will take them a while of adjusting the volume up and down before they get to the perfect level, whereas someone with the relevant fine motor skills might be able to adjust straight there. 

The skill of tuning in and out to sensory information, one you use as you listen to a conversation against background noise, or read a sign on a busy high street, is developed through early childhood experiences. Some childhoods are rich in sensory experiences, and other childhoods are limited. If you were able to get out of the house, roll down a grassy bank, swing from trees, climb a climbing frame, bounce on a trampoline, you have had a very different set of sensory experiences from the child whose house was small and far from an outdoor play space who entertained themselves on a screen whilst seated.

Some children present with sensory differences because they have missed out on the opportunity to develop sensory skills (to develop their operation of those volume controls) and some children present with sensory differences because their volume controls are broken. And there are different ways they could be broken, perhaps they are set too high, or too low, and just stuck there, or perhaps they have been overly greased so that no matter how carefully someone operates them, they slide around becoming too high or too low. 

It is important to think about these distinctions because an approach that is a supportive of one child could be cruel to another. If I am someone who needs practice to learn to focus on a visual stimulus, then asking me to engage in activities that have me practice that skill is going to be beneficial to me. However, if I am someone whose visual volume control is turned up full whack so that visual stimulus hurts my eye, being asked to engage in that activity isn’t going to help me, it’s going to hurt me. And again, the misunderstandings and narratives created around this are harmful. The risk is that the narrative will be that I didn’t try hard enough, or wouldn’t focus, that it was my fault that the therapy that supported my peer does not work for me.

A parent recently asked me how their son could have struggled with loud noises when he was younger but now got into trouble at home for making loud noises. When you think of the volume control analogy this seemingly counterintuitive situation makes sense. When he was born, the volume on his hearing wasn’t right for his interaction with the world, so he’s adjusted it, only he’s gone too far in the opposite direction. With some children with sensory differences, you could witness changes like this hour to hour. It’s important we are sympathetic and do not judge their experience as being supposed to be like our own. 

Listen out for the judgement in things you say “You’re being too loud” – what you mean is “too loud for me”, they might be exactly the right volume for them! It is easy for us to think the sensory landscape as we experience it is fixed. We have made sure the room is lit appropriately, it is the right temperature, the music we are playing is not too loud, and so on. But what we have done is created a space that suits us and our sensory needs. The sensory needs of the children may be different.

Using a feelie bag is a good way of exploring our sensory likes and dislikes and talking to one another about them. Try including items that are likely to highlight that experience is unique to the individual. A good one I often find is cotton wool, some people love the feel other people say it makes the hairs on the back of their neck stand on end! Remember as you talk about these differences, work hard to weed out the judgement from your language. Doing so can be enormously powerful!

Jo provides in-person and online training to settings looking to enhance their inclusive practice for more information visit www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk where you can also find resources to help you include children of all abilities. Jo is active on social media and welcomes connection requests from people curious about inclusive practice.

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 neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.

Joanna has published four practitioner books: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”“Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”“Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”There is new book coming out soon called ‘”The Subtle Spectrum” and her son has recently become the UK’s youngest published author with his book, My Mummy is Autistic.

Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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