What has sensory processing got to do with Trauma?
Sensory processing relates to how our brain receives information through the senses, and makes decisions based on that information. Sensory input comes from our experiences of vision, touch, smell, sound and taste from the world around us. That sensory stimuli is then processed at split second speed in our nervous system so that we can react to it in a way that is meaningful.
"Sensory processing relates to how our brain receives information through the senses, and makes split second decisions based on that information...If we didn’t notice the sensory stimuli around us throughout the day, then we would not be able to engage effectively with our environment."
If we didn’t notice the sensory stimuli around us throughout the day, then we would not be able to engage effectively with our environment. Think of someone who has a visual or hearing impairment and reflect on the things that they might miss out on. Imagine your nervous system as a giant computer and think about what would happen if all the information going into it got scrambled! We all need our senses so much and we also need the internal system (based in our nervous system) to process the information that comes in. Then we need good reactions to that information. If any of these things go wrong then we may struggle with daily life, for example crashing into things, burning ourselves on a hot stove or eating things that might break our teeth!
We usually think of five, but there are at least three others that we need to be aware of in our development: proprioceptive, vestibular and interoceptive senses. The proprioceptive sense tells us where our body is in space, and our vestibular sense works with gravity to let us know whether we are upright or horizontal. Interoception is connected with our emotions and is a combination of internal senses that tell us what is going on inside of us such as whether we are hungry, need the toilet or not, or if we are in pain.
When a baby is born, they are immediately faced with a new set of sensory experiences. The moment they are born they begin the journey of sensory exploration: familiarising themselves with new smells, lights, objects to look at, gentle touches, soothing sounds and calming tastes are all part of healthy early development.
However, what if that baby has uncomfortable sensory experiences or not enough stimulation? Where a child has experienced trauma in the form of abuse or neglect, they may struggle to enjoy touch, be vigilant about loud sounds, or feel uncomfortable around certain smells that trigger difficult memories. If their caregiver has not attuned to their needs, then the child may grow oblivious to those important interoceptive sensations that lets them know when they are hungry, feel pain or are feeling scared perhaps. They may then inhibit feelings and sensations so that they can cope with neglectful care.
"Where a child has experienced trauma in the form of abuse or neglect, they may struggle to enjoy touch, be vigilant about loud sounds, or feel uncomfortable around certain smells that trigger difficult memories."
The repercussions of having poor sensory input or dangerous sensory input are endless. Here are a few examples:
Lack of awareness of touch
Poor fine motor skills
Lack of awareness of body space,
Lack of body awareness
Sensory issues are therefore very much linked to our early life experiences. Being aware of the impact of sensory processing and trauma helps us to spot those who are uncomfortable around certain sensations, or who may be impacted by a lack of sensory input when young. However, that is not to say that all sensory difficulties stem from trauma or attachment difficulties.
If you are involved in any work with children it is really helpful to learn about sensory processing as it is so foundational to our daily lives and can help us to modify environments with those who have sensory difficulties. This doesn’t just apply to children: young people and adults can have sensory difficulties and may have learned to cover them up. All the same they can experience a sense of overwhelm in an over- stimulating environment or may struggle to focus due to low arousal levels.
"If you are involved in any work with children it is really helpful to learn about sensory processing as it is so foundational to our daily lives and can help us to modify environments with those who have sensory difficulties."
Things to consider for those who get overwhelmed:
Is the room you meet in over–stimulating with too much on the walls?
Are there any triggering or over stimulating smells such as heavy perfumes, damp, air fresheners, cleaning products?
For those who have any sensory impairments or attentional difficulties, adding a range of sensory experiences is helpful, for example making stories multisensory.
What is multisensory?
Using more than one medium to communicate something, for example having things to touch, smell, listen to, watch taste and actually do with the whole body to reinforce learning. If information is delivered in several different ways, we know that research tells us that we are more likely to remember things if we take an active part in the learning process.
Some top tips for helping children of all ages feel calm are:
Build in movement breaks in children’s church and youth groups so that everyone gets to move about rather than sitting focussing. Movement is especially calming if it involves the proprioceptive system: for example stacking some chairs, doing press ups against the wall or walking on all fours.
Chewing can be very calming: you could consider putting out some pieces of chewy mango or cereal bars (subject to risk assessment for food allergies).
Rhythmical activities such as clapping, action songs, throw and catch games (try using a bean bag for this if indoors).
It is important to be aware of those who might find certain sensory experiences uncomfortable or who may struggle to focus. Sometimes children with sensory difficulties can need extra support and that is hard when you are low on volunteers and have other children that focus well and are ready to learn. Subtle changes in the way we do things can mean a huge change in engagement. Try to think outside the box about the way you communicate, using positive language and a variety of sensory experiences. Incorporating short movement breaks for the whole group can be really helpful. Find out from parents/carers whether they have noticed the child experiencing any sensory difficulties and work with them to find strategies that can help. Make sure your whole team are on the same page.
"Subtle changes in the way we do things can mean a huge change in engagement."