Individuals with sensory sensitivities process external stimulation differently than neurotypical individuals.
They can both overreact and underreact to sensorial input. Sounds that are normal to most people might be so upsetting that they prompt great emotional upset. Textures of certain common foods might be so unpleasant that the simple act of eating becomes troublesome. Plus, the vestibular sense (i.e., the body’s sensation of movement) can also be affected by sensory issues.
Some people with sensory processing issues are stimuli-averse and easily feel overwhelmed. Others do not register enough sensory input and therefore seek out more stimulation. And many experience a mix of both over- and under-sensitivity. Basically, their bodies struggle to effectively organize the sensory input they receive, and their behavior reflects these challenges.
Neurological Basis of Sensory Challenges
The root cause of differing sensitivity is not fully understood. But new studies are looking at the neurological basis of sensory sensitivities and are beginning to identify underlying physiological differences that contribute.
For example, researchers have been able to measure and compare the resting rates of the parasympathetic nervous system of both neurotypical and atypical (sensory challenged) children. The parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes called the “rest and digest” system. When it is active an individual is more relaxed. Their nervous system is less aroused and less easily agitated. This is in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response that keeps a person on guard.
Intriguingly, children with sensory processing disorders have different resting rates in their parasympathetic systems than neurotypical children. This means that their “fight or flight” system is more activated and on alert. Researchers believe that this difference contributes to the reasons why they are overly sensitive to stimuli.
Treatment Options for Sensory Sensitivities
There are only a handful of treatment approaches for sensory processing disorders. All of them, however, aim to help people learn to better regulate their sensory responses. By doing so, they can live with less distress and learn to focus more fully on what is most important.
Therapists may use desensitization techniques to help those who have sensory issues become more comfortable through repeated exposure to stimuli.
For example, if a child is averse to loud noises, a therapist may find methods to gradually expose the child to those sounds on a quieter level. Over time, the child will likely be less sensitive to that sound and better able to handle similar stimulus.
Sensory Integration Therapy
Occupational therapists often work with sensory atypical patients. They use techniques that feed into the client’s unique sensory needs.
An occupational therapist identifies ways to provide children and their parents with the tools to maintain the right amount of sensory input at home and school. This might involve weighted blankets, wiggle cushions, fidget toys, and exercise.
The Tomatis Method
The beauty of the Tomatis Method is that it can address the senses on many levels—auditory, tactile, and vestibular—within one simple technique. Sound is delivered not only to the ear but also through bone vibration. It offers a very integrated approach to dealing with sensory challenges.
With the Tomatis Method, a person learns to sort through the auditory stimuli they receive in order to focus on what is truly important. Basically, this method helps them hone their attention skills. As they do this, they learn to process stimuli more quickly. At the same time, they are also learning to have greater tolerance for sensory input.
How is this helpful in treating sensory issues?
When an individual becomes more efficient at paying attention and processing stimuli, their nervous systems don’t fatigue as quickly. This is because they can home in on what’s most important with less struggle. And when sensory fatigue is reduced, the sympathetic system (fight or flight) becomes less engaged. Then, the parasympathetic system (rest and digest) becomes more active and the body’s reactivity to stimuli is reduced.
It’s easy to see how this process can be incredibly helpful for those with sensory struggles.
If you or your child is facing sensory processing challenges, please feel free to contact me. I have decades of experience in using the Tomatis method to successfully treat individuals—adults and children alike—overcome their struggles with sensory issues.
For more information about Sensory Processing Disorder, please click on the link.