By Dr Melodie de Jager
The word sensory comes from the word ‘senses’ and is associated with the word ‘sensitive’. Senses are hugely important in developing a child, because the senses are the doorway to brain development. That means the senses trigger a curious brain, which in turn prompts the muscles to develop so a baby starts exploring his environment. Being ‘sensory’ is needed before a child can develop his body, his emotions, his social and intellectual skills, so we say ‘YEAH!’ to being sensory.
We learn about the opposite of being ‘sensory’ from the sad examples where children were hidden (for whatever reason) and brought up in a small dark room. These children did not develop despite the fact that they may have had perfect brains, but because they lacked the key ingredient for development – sensory stimulation, they were classified as ‘retarded’ or more recently, as children with ‘pervasive developmental delays’.
Being sensory is a good thing because it makes a child sensitive to two critical elements needed to survive, and later to thrive:
To survive physically, a baby must be able to sense his body and recognise when he is hungry (inside senses), and also when he is separated from mom (outside senses) because he needs his mom to limit sensory input so he can feel safe until his nervous system has developed some more.
If mom doesn’t limit sensory input, sensations from his body and the environment charges through the doorway and overwhelm the brain.
To survive, nature provides babies, children, and adults with two kinds of senses: 1 group of senses to keep an eye on his body; and 1 group of senses to keep an eye on the environment. At the BabyGym® Institute we call the senses that are sensitive to messages from INside the body the INside senses, and the senses that are sensitive to messages from OUTside the body the OUTside senses. The OUTside senses are better known than the inside senses because we can touch the skin, nose, mouth, ears and eyes, while the INside senses are more of a mystery because we cannot touch them – we can only experience them… through movement and balance. OR if they are not working well, we experience the absence of the INside senses, for example when we feel sick while moving, fear heights, are clumsy and accident prone, get lost or often lose things, find it difficult to organise ourselves and make friends, leaving us or our child feeling lonely and confused.
When a child is ‘too sensory’ it means that too much information is rushing into the brain at the same time, creating what Jean Ayres calls a ‘traffic jam’ in the brain. This is very unpleasant for a child and fuels an intense need to withdraw by covering his ears or head, running away to hide or cling to you and cry, avoid eating, touching or interacting (sensory avoiding). When the senses are too sensitive a child may show some or all of these behaviors that beg you to understand: “I AM NOT NAUGHTY OR DIFFICULT, I NEED HELP!”
Sensory over stimulation can best be described as causing a traffic jam in the brain
When a child is ‘too little sensory’ it means that too little information is picked up by the senses. It is as though the INside and OUTside senses are drowsy and need very strong stimulation before they register and excite the brain (sensory seeking). ‘Drowsy’ senses leave a child feeling bored, alone and isolated which is very unpleasant for a child and you may see some or all of these behaviors that beg you to understand: ‘I AM NOT NAUGHTY. I AM NOT A BULLY. I NEED HELP!’
When the INside and OUTside senses work well together, information flows smoothly through the brain and a child is able to know where he is in space; pay attention to what is important; ignore what is irrelevant; look after his own things; organise himself in time; sequence tasks easily like getting dressed; speaks clearly; and is sensitive to the needs of others.
Jean Ayres said: “Sensory integration is the process by which we receive information through our senses, organise this information, and use it to participate in everyday activities. Slow learning and poor behavior in children are often caused by inadequate sensory integration within the child’s brain.”
HUG your child often, he or she needs your understanding – if he could do things differently, he would!
You may wonder if a child will grow out of it. Experience has taught us that it is most unlikely that a child will grow out of being ‘too sensory’ (sensory avoidance) or ‘too little sensory’ (sensory seeking). In both instances the child needs you. If the child is too sensitive he needs you to limit the amount of stimulation and to calm down the nervous system until his senses have learned not to pay attention to everything inside and outside his body and to ignore irrelevant stimulation (sensory inhibition). If the child is ‘too little sensitive’, he needs you to spend quality time together while waking up his senses.
In both instances it is recommended that you first focus your efforts on the sense of touch and the INside senses. These senses need to work together and integrate sensory information from the body and where it is in space, before the senses of smell, taste, hearing or sight can work well.
The INside senses give a child a feeling that:
Irrespective if the child is sensory seeking or sensory avoiding – use movement as medicine for the next three weeks and see how behavior changes gradually. At the Mind Moves® Institute we have found that doing each of the following Mind Moves slowly and deliberately every morning and every evening before bedtime, you will be amazed at the results, even if you only repeat each move as little as three times every time:
Massage both ear lobes simultaneously from top to bottom using circular movements. This move develops the near senses, auditory processing, auditory perception as well as receptive language ability.
Child must stand upright and hold both arms 90 degrees to the side of the body. Stand behind the child and firmly trace the outline of the body from head to toe. Hold the feet and push down for a moment as if planting the legs before repeating three times.
Simulate the reflex by flinging the arms wide open while breathing deeply and slowly, and then closing the arms over the chest in a hug, breathing deeply and slowly. The learner can hug himself, or the parent may hug him simultaneously. This move boosts relaxation, rhythmic breathing and a sense of well-being.
Three weeks may be too short a time frame for some children, feel free to continue as long as needed to see a change in behavior. You cannot ‘overdose’ on Mind Moves.
You may also want to visit a BabyGym Instructor www.babygym.co.za if your baby needs more support to regulate sensory input, or an Advanced Mind Moves Instructor www.mindmoves.co.za if your child needs more support to regulate sensory input. Alternatively consult a Neurodevelopmental Physiotherapist, or an Occupational Therapist (with SI) or a Child Kineticist or if speech is affected – a Speech Therapist.
A word of caution: if a child often battles with candida, allergies and/or a blocked or stuffy nose, tend to that first, because any therapy is undermined when these conditions persist. These conditions may even be the root cause of a child’s lack of sensory integration.