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The Sense of Touch: Somatosenory

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of hearing, otherwise known as “Somatosensory,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

The sense of touch is the activation of neural receptors generally in the skin. The sense of touch encompasses many different types of stimuli including but not limited to pain, pressure, tension, temperature, texture, shape, weight, contours and vibrations. Depending on the sensations depends on the type of neural receptor. For example, thermoreceptors respond to temperature, nociceptors respond to pain, and mechanoreceptors respond to mechanical stimuli such as tension, pressure, vibration.

A common misbelief is that skin is the only organ involved with the sense of touch, but in fact, the receptors are spread all throughout the body including muscles, joints, bones, nostrils, throat, tongue etc comprising the somatosensory system.

The sensations travel through the neural pathways to the spinal cord, the brain stem and the thalamus to what is called the somatosensory cortex in the brain.

When your child is suffering from sensory processing disorder and has issues processing touch based sensations, their brains are either receiving “too much” information or “not enough” information.

Here are some indicators that your child might be receiving too much information:

  • avoiding touch including hugs from familiar adults
  • distressed during hair cutting or brushing and sometimes washed
  • using fingertips rather than using their whole hand
  • overreaction to being accidentally bumped or touched
  • doesn’t like to be barefoot
  • dislike clothing, hats, mittens, and shoes
  • doesn’t wash hands because it feels unpleasant
  • unable to tolerate food in the mouth
  • doesn’t tolerate toothbrush touching their teeth

Here are some indicators that your child might be receiving not enough information:

  • touching people regardless of personal boundaries
  • playing with other people’s hair or clothing
  • pinch, bite or hurts themselves or others
  • doesn’t understand their own strength
  • high pain threshold
  • hit or bang head on purpose
  • throw themselves onto the ground

If you find that your child has some of these indicators, here are a few things that you can do to help them.

  • allow them to fiddle with something that is appropriate and not distracting to others
  • carry squeeze ball or fidget toys with you if they are touching something they are not supposed to be touching
  • have them wear textured clothing
  • sand play, water play, finger paints as sensory output activities
  • give advanced warning to activities that need to be done (like washing hair)
  • use blankets and stuffed animals to help them sleep at night
  • experiment with different foods (for example smooth or crunchy peanut butter)

A tactile disorder should be taken seriously as touch is very important in establishing fine motor skills because they use taste and touch to explore the world around them. Find an occupational therapy who can work with your child.

The Sense of Hearing: Audioception

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of hearing, otherwise known as “Audioception,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

In the broadest sense, hearing is about vibration. Sound itself is vibrations that travel through the air, our bodies ability to detect these vibrations is known as the sense of hearing. There are mechanoreceptors are located in the inner ear, pick up these vibrations and pass them through tiny bones called the ossicles and into the cochlea where it is then turned into electrical nerve pulse signals for the brain to interpret.

When someone has Sensory Processing Disorder, their ability to handle sound vibration can either be hypersensitive or hypo-sensitive. Hypersensitivity is caused by a malfunction of the stapedius. The stapedius muscle contracts in responses to loud noises to protect our ear drum. When this fails to happen, noises appear much louder and the ability to filter our background noise is difficult. On the other side of the coin, hypo-sensitivity where the child cannot distinguish sounds or looks for louder sounds.

Here are some indicators that your child might be hypersensitive or hypo-sensitive to noise:

  • afraid of the vacuum, hair dryers, or toilet flushing
  • overreaction to loud sounds (covering ears, crying, running away or aggression)
  • annoyed or distracted by common sounds (fans, clocks, refrigerators)
  • keeps music, radio or television very loud
  • dislikes crowds
  • makes noise to just make noise
  • makes other people repeat themselves often because of not understanding
  • unable to determine the location of a sound

In some cases, your child might have what is referred to as Auditory Processing Disorder, where they have the ability to hear but struggle to process what they are hearing.

Well known example of this is demonstrated below:

Teacher: “Tell me how a chair and a couch are similar”
Student with APD: “Tell me how a cow and hair are similar”

The primary difference between this and hyper/hypo sensitivity is the problem lies with the understanding of the sounds rather than the volume of the sounds. The number of children with Auditory Process Disorder is estimated between 2-7%.

There are four types of auditory processing disorders:

  1. Auditory Discrimination – the inability to notice or compare between distinct and separate sounds (seventeen and seventy might be hard to distinguish)
  2. Auditory Figure-Ground Discrimination – inability to focus on important sounds in a noisy setting
  3. Auditory Memory – inability to recall what you’ve heard or what was said
  4. Auditory Sequencing – inability to understand and recall the order of sounds or words (for example, hear the number 357 but write down 735).

Here are some indicators that your child might have Auditory Processing Disorder:

  • has trouble following spoken directions
  • easily distracted by noises and background noises
  • has trouble with phonics involved with reading and spelling
  • struggle with oral math problems
  • can’t follow long conversations
  • can’t learn songs or nursery rhymes

When your child is suffering from either hyper/hypo sensitivity or Auditory Processing Disorder it can have a direct impact on their communication, their academic life, and their social skills. If you feel that your child might need help contact a speech and language pathologist or your school psychologist.

The Sense Of Sight: Ophthalmoception

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of sight, otherwise known as “Opthalmoception,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

In the broadest sense, sight or vision happens when the eye’s photoreceptors focus and detect visible light in the retina. This then generates an electrical nerve impulse creating various colors, hues, and brightness forming shapes.

There are two types of photoreceptors in the eye: rods and cones. Rods are sensitive to light and cones help distinguish colors. The neurons take the image and send it to your brain. The brain then interprets it and alerts you as to what the image is and how to respond.

When someone has sensory processing disorder, their ability to cognitively process information they take in through the eyes (visual perception) is affected. There are 8 different kinds of visual processing errors that can occur:

  • Visual Discrimination (confusing d and b, p and q)
  • Visual Figure-Ground Discrimination (pulling out a shape from its background)
  • Visual Sequencing Issues (difficulty establishing order of words, symbols, or image).
  • Visual Motor-Processing Issues (trouble coordinating movement of body parts)
  • Long or Short-Term Visual Memory Issues (recalling what they have seen)
  • Visual-Spatial Issues (difficulty telling location of objects)
  • Visual Closure Issues (being unable to recognize parts of the whole)
  • Letter and Symbol Reversal Issues (switching letters or numbers when writing – also know as dyslexia, which affects 1 in 5 kids)

Here are some indicators as to whether or not your child might be suffering from visual processing disorder:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Distracted by visual stimuli
  • Squints and rubs eyes
  • Trouble finding things even when it’s right in front of them
  • Headaches after visual stimulating activity
  • Trouble holding eye contact
  • Loving or hating being in the dark
  • Trouble distinguishing between shapes, letter or symbols
  • Trouble with handwriting including but not limited letter reversals, sizing, spacing or alignment of letters
  • Losing place when reading
  • Bumps into things
  • Slow or hesitant with stairs
  • Trouble distinguishing left from right

If you noticed that your child might have any of these warning signs, then there are few activities that you can do to help develop visual skills.

  • Develop visual tracking skills by using moving objects and stationary objects
  • Crawling and rolling on the floor
  • Spot the difference and hidden picture games
  • Emphasis maintaining eye contact when speaking
  • Hot & Cold Scavenger Hunts
  • Balloon volleyball
  • Bubble popping
  • Using a flashlight before going to the dentist (for more information go to our visiting the dentist page)

When your child is suffering from visual processing issues, it can affect their academic life, emotional life, as well as basic life skills. The best places to get help are a pediatric ophthalmologist, pediatric optometrist, behavior optometrist and in extreme cases a neuropsychologist.

Children Who Need Sensory Input To Stay On Task

Fidget spinners are the bane of teachers existence. Yet, to some, it’s helped their students to great lengths. This therapeutic device has many benefits for children who have “sensory seekers.” Some children are considered “sensory seekers” especially if they have things such as ADD, ADHD or autism. When they have things that stimulate them they become more organized, pay closer attention and complete tasks.

The issue is that people who do not suffer from these conditions have been bringing them into class and it has been distracting to themselves and other students, defeating the entire purpose of these devices.

But what should we do about this “fidget spinner crisis” that we have on our hands plaguing schools? Here are a few alternatives that can help those who need stimulation since fidget spinners have been banned in most schools:

  • Sitting on a bean bag chair during desk work will allow the child to bounce around and move without leaving their station
  • Climbing on the monkey bars during recess right before returning to the classroom
  • Responsible tasks such as reorganizing, washing the blackboard, etc, can help make them feel like they have a purpose rather than feeling burdensome
  • Access to a rocking chair as a positive reinforcement
  • Spill proof water bottles especially those who need a sensory input for their mouth
  • Hackey sacks, koosh balls, or any other stress reliever
  • Top of pencil chewers also great for kids with an oral fixation

Keep in mind, that even if there are other ways to help a child with their sensory input needs, other children will either be jealous of their responsibilities or find the latest new gadget and want to have it as well. The key is to balance these two things together and educate parents on what is the right way for their child to behave in the classroom.

Autism – Brief Report On The Effects of Exercise

In 1997, Mitchell and Rosenthal-Malek published a report in the Journal of Autism Development Disorder (27[2], 192-201) about the effects of exercise on the self-stimulatory behaviors and positive responding of adolescents with autism.

According to their report, there have been earlier research performed that showed that exercise has had some success in diminishing negative behaviors in populations that have special needs. Based on this research, Mitchell and Rosenthal-Malek chose to continue this study on a small sample of children (5 adolescent males around the age of 15) that have autism.

The study had each child complete either an exercise program or an academic program during the school day for 20 days (10 of each type of program). The exercise program included stretching and jogging for 20 minutes while the academic program consisted of the standard curriculum that is provided during a school day. It’s also important to note that the child was in a regular classroom and also in a community workshop switching their environment throughout the test. The data that they collected included the amount of:

  • self-stimulatory behavior in the classroom
  • self-stimulatory behavior in the community workshop
  • correct answers in the classroom
  • correct answers in the community workshop

According to Mitchell and Rosenthal-Malek, the data suggest that in both the classroom and the community workshop, the amount of self-stimulatory behaviors decreased significantly after exercise as opposed to when they were in the academic setting. Other noteworthy results the exercise increased the number of correct answers in the classroom and the overall work produced in the community workshop.

Based on the results of this study, it is highly recommended that there should be an inclusion of exercise programs for adolescent students as part of their mandatory curriculum. However, this is one of many tests on a small sample size. Further testing is required to prove that this would be beneficial for all cases of autism or anyone with sensory processing disorder.