You know something about sensory processing, or you wouldn’t be here. You have decided this was something worth learning about, and you’re right.
I don’t want to approach this subject the way most people do. Not even the way I’ve approached it in the past. Instead, I’m going to get right to the point - why you need to understand sensory processing and how you can apply the knowledge right away.
Learning is different from applying knowledge. When you start applying knowledge, you will always reach a point where the “rules” you’ve learned seem to break down. If you keep practicing, you’ll find principles - deeper truths you can only discover through experience. A funny thing happens then - the “rules” you might have struggled to apply before, work naturally from your deeper understanding.
I used to start where most people do, with learning. “There are seven senses, they are…” Or maybe I’d explain about over-sensitive and under-sensitive. You’d listen with interest, or smile and nod, then go home to the same struggles. You might decide that sensory stuff is fun but doesn’t get you very far. Or worse, you might believe that I have something you don’t, that makes it easy for me and not for you.
I have only one thing that makes applying sensory strategies easier for me: I’ve practiced past that midpoint when so many give up. Looking back at the place where the rules seem to break down, I’d like to put up two signposts to help you through.
I see two common mistakes that stop people from going further to apply sensory principles:
Mistake #1: Recognizing only the 5 external senses
I promised I would not list the seven senses, so I won’t. If you’re not sure what I mean, look up “seven senses” and you’ll find it. Yet people learn it, and don’t apply the knowledge.
The five external senses - the ones they taught you in grade school - tell you everything that’s happening outside of your body. From the outside world, right up to the surface of your skin. These are important, but not nearly as vital to your well-being as the internal senses - the ones that tell your body about itself.
Even if you knew this, chances are you don’t apply this knowledge. We all recognize when someone isn’t hearing or seeing something, and we definitely notice if someone is smelling, tasting, or touching things in an unusual way. But can you recognize poor proprioception? Can you tell how your child’s vestibular sense is functioning? Both can be observed, when you know what to look for. Yet when we don’t recognize these systems, we can’t address them.
Mistake #2: Mistaking sensory input for something superficial, rather than the core driver of behavior and emotion
If you search for “sensory strategies” or “sensory processing” you’ll find no shortage of chewy tools, tactile or visual fidgets, and fun projects (usually tactile or visual). While I’m so glad sensory processing has entered the mainstream conversation, many people are still missing the mark.
When we talk about sensory processing, we are talking about a person’s entire experience of their world. We are not talking about something you touch once in a while, or something you bite on when you feel anxious - those are only tiny slices of your full sensory experience. We are literally talking about the way it feels to walk around in your skin.
It is not easy to know what it feels like to walk around in someone else’s skin. Sometimes they are unaware of something that feels important to you, or wholly focused on something that you have overlooked. Sometimes it feels very, very bad to be in that skin - but no matter what, it feels different - because we are all different.
I express the magnitude of what sensory processing is, not to dissuade you from trying these tools, but to ensure you know what a tool can and can’t do. A tool does nothing by itself, it requires the skill of the user to perform its function. Also, you need the right tool for the job. If you are hoping to shift big life experiences like attention, anxiety, and social behavior, you will not be able to do it by simply engaging the hands, eyes, and ears.
How to get beyond the basics, and apply sensory processing principles in real life:
You are already equipped with one important skill for understanding sensory processing. That skill is empathy. It is not easy to know what it feels like to walk around in someone else’s skin, but we are equipped with an innate ability to feel some part of what they feel. Research has demonstrated that when people share an experience, even if one person is just watching or hearing about it later, they will share many of the same neurotransmitters - thus feeling something of what the other person feels.
I also advise practicing as much as possible with recognizing the two internal senses, proprioception and vestibular. Read about them, try things out, and observe your child’s responses. If you have access to an occupational therapist or other expert in sensory processing, ask questions. Do not assume that these two senses are “fine.” If you are observing problems with listening, touch, or any other external function, chances are very good that working from a whole body perspective will help. If you are working through emotions, these are internal experiences. Try working on them from the inside out.
- Get close. Get on eye level with your child, get within arm’s reach. Use your empathy to get a sense of how your child feels. Notice how your feelings are entwined.
- Do activities that exhilarate and challenge the whole body every day. Don’t overthink this - jumping on the bed or rolling in grass can be enough - but don’t overlook it, either.
- Learn more about the vestibular and proprioceptive senses - they are vital to the brain’s ability to engage with the world.