In addition to many other complex processes, our brain, in combination with our central nervous system, is responsible for taking in the vast array of sensory information around us. Processing this incoming knowledge requires the brain to select which information to attend to, enhance, or inhibit. The way we function in the world and engage with others is directly affected by this undertaking.
Our brain not only takes in information from the “outer” or “far” senses of hearing, sight, touch, taste, and smell but also receives details from our “inner” or “near” senses. This includes particulars such as our sense of balance, the amount of force needed to complete tasks, the position of our trunk and limbs in relation to ourselves and our environment, and our states of hunger, wakefulness, and arousal, to name just a few. Regardless, it’s a tall order. For those fortunate enough to have “typical” sensory functioning, this happens seamlessly and primarily out of our conscious awareness.
As research on the developing brain has shown, neurological associations are formed over thousands upon thousands of experiences, and our brains wire these bonds at an astounding rate during infancy and early childhood. We continue to make new connections throughout our lives, but that process does slow down with age. Children who are exposed to harmful substances in utero (such as alcohol, drugs, or high-stress hormones), have experienced abuse or neglect, undergone intense medical interventions, or were born prematurely, among other developmental difficulties, are at an increased risk for sensory processing challenges.
In other words, a child’s brain that has been deprived of a “typical” childhood experience becomes preoccupied with trying to decode sensory material. When any of these senses, inner or outer, cannot be received and processed efficiently, accurately, and consistently, it leaves the child with a chaotic existence, lighting up the brain stem and leading to longer periods spent in “fight or flight.” The child is dysregulated by their internal struggle to process what is happening outside or inside their body. This leads the child to feel largely uncomfortable in their own skin and question their biology’s reliability to help them navigate the world. Similar to the temporary awkwardness of puberty, this is a consistent feeling of confusion that can leave a child concluding that they lack intelligence or are less capable than others. The reality is that they have to work much harder than their peers at basic tasks due to developmental differences resulting from their sensory differences.
Since our primary way of understanding the world around us from infancy onward is through our senses, this makes learning (academically, relationally, and otherwise) and overall development for these children a slower, more taxing process. Because stress is easily passed along to others, living with someone with sensory differences can be incredibly difficult. Often, without insight, a child’s behavior is wrongly viewed by others as defiant, or parents’ expectations exceed the child’s abilities, leading to disappointment, frustration, and strained relationships.
In reality, the child is simply trying to communicate a need for which they have no language or understanding.
Attachment is a process that happens through the senses. Babies are fed, held, rocked, and snuggled. When hungry, tired, have a dirty diaper, or just need a snuggle, an attentive caregiver comes and meets the need. This person often sings to, talks with, or massages the baby, explaining the discomfort and how the need is being met. These experiences form the basis for typical sensory development. The conversations happening during these times of need help the child understand their body more accurately. When these occurrences are missing due to neglect or abuse, drug or alcohol use, caregiver depression, a need for extended medical placement, or other extenuating circumstances, healthy sensory processing is at risk. Because the sensory system has developed in a way that does not allow the child to experience pleasure, instead connecting sensory experiences with stress, chaos, or pain, the child lacks the ability to calm down in response to caregiving actions.
Relationships are a two-way street. When a child is often stressed, irritable, and generally unable to relax, providing care lacks a sense of reward. Those in the immediate support system for the child find themselves reacting to the stress the child is feeling. Being the regulated, calm adult becomes next to impossible. Knowing when and how a child is experiencing sensory distress requires expertly attuned care. If a child you are providing care for has risk factors in their history that could result in sensory challenges, consulting an expert in the field of sensory integration is key.
Armed with a better understanding of a child’s needs over time, adjusted expectations, increased self-awareness, and fine-tuned intervention, those who care for children with trauma can become a powerful force for change. We will be exploring sensory differences in our classes this quarter. We hope to see you there!