As we all learned in elementary school, there are five basic senses that we use to process the world around us; touch, hearing, vision, smell, and taste. Our sense organs (e.g., eyes, nose, etc.) receive information from the environment and relay that information to the brain for interpretation.
Throughout the day, each of us processes all kinds of sensory information, much of which comes at us at the same time, and we do so in a relatively comfortable way. Consider the simple task of sitting down to eat breakfast. You smell and taste the food, which has various textures and temperatures—the milk might be cold and smooth, and the cereal a different temperature and texture. You process the feel of the spoon in your hand and on your lips.
You also process the texture of the napkin as you wipe your mouth, the feel of the clothes that are you wearing and the furniture that you are sitting on, the temperature of the room, the sites that surround you and the sounds that accompany your breakfast, some of which might be related to the meal (e.g., crunching, slurping) and some of which may be completely unrelated (e.g. the buzz of the air conditioner). We are all basically bombarded with sensory information in almost everything that we do and most of us process it and remain attentive, comfortable and relaxed.
What are Sensory Deficits?
Children with autism often have sensory processing deficits, which make it more difficult for them to process sensory information. The result of this sensory processing deficit is that instead of feeling calm and comfortable, the child may feel agitated, uncomfortable, and distracted. Children with autism have difficulty regulating their response to sensory input and may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive.
Hyposensitivity is when an individual is under-sensitive and has a muted response to sensory information. Many years ago, I worked with a little boy who, during a cooking activity, stuck his hand into a bowl of boiling water. A person with a healthy sensory processing system would scream and wince in pain, yet this child did not react at all. He showed no reaction at all to submerging his hand into boiling water. This is an example of hyposensitivity.
A consequence of hyposensitivity is that a child may crave or seek out sensory information to help satisfy a sensory need. Children who demonstrate behaviors such as head-banging or harming themselves in other ways such as biting themselves are often demonstrating hyposensitivity. Their bodies are simply not processing sensory information in a healthy way, and they are looking for ways to meet their sensory needs.
On the contrary, hypersensitivity is when an individual demonstrates an over-sensitivity to sensory information. Children with hypersensitivity may avoid, be fearful of, and demonstrate adverse reactions to certain sensory information. I worked with a child that was so hypersensitive to creamy textures (e.g., whipped cream, finger paint) that he would gag at the sight of a can of shaving cream.
Being hypersensitive can cause a child to avoid or be agitated by certain situations or experiences, he/she may become distracted by or sensitive to sounds or have a very limited diet because of the various smells and textures. Interestingly, a child can experience both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. For example, a child might be hypersensitive to auditory stimuli and hyposensitive to touch.
How can sensory deficits impact communication?
Have you ever been so hungry or tired that you are agitated, distracted, and uncomfortable? You are completely out-of-sorts because of the hunger or fatigue such that all you can do is think about how to satisfy this need. Now consider a child whose sensory system isn’t processing information in an appropriate way. He/she will have trouble concentrating, paying attention, and engaging. The child may also be perseverative or non-compliant as a result of sensory-based issues.
Now consider communication. Although there is no singular way that a child with sensory issues is impacted and each child is affected differently, a child is not likely to be able to communicate appropriately if agitated, distracted, and uncomfortable. Attention, concentration, and engagement are paramount to learning speech and language and using speech and language appropriately, and these are often compromised due to sensory deficits.
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Ways to minimize the effects that sensory deficits have on communication
There are a variety of things you can do to help minimize the effects sensory deficits have on your child’s speech and language skills.
Consider the child’s sensory deficits and determine how they may be impacting communication.
In other words, consider what behaviors may be impacting communication and try to determine whether those behaviors are related to sensory deficits. Once this is determined you can consider how to address the sensory issues so that there is a positive impact on communication.
Adjust the environment.
One way to address a sensory deficit and potentially increase communication is by adjusting the environment. For example, if a child is fearful of certain situations or reacts poorly because of a hypersensitivity to sound, adjusting the environment to address the sensory issue will positively impact communication. Adjustments to the environment may include finding ways to reduce extraneous sounds, high-pitched sounds, or very loud sounds.
A simple change, such as moving to a quieter or less crowded location may help to address the child’s sensory issue with the result being the child will be more communicative because he/she will be more comfortable.
Consider ways to meet your child’s sensory needs.
Meeting a child’s sensory needs can have a positive impact on communication. Simply put, when a child is more comfortable and attentive, he/she is more able to and likely to communicate. Conversely, when a child is craving or seeking out sensory input or avoiding sensory experiences, communication will be compromised.
Satisfying a sensory need and/or helping to address avoidance behaviors will enable a child to communicate more and do so more appropriately. For example, if a child is seeking the sensory input of deep pressure, if that need is satisfied by a bear hug or some sort of compression activity, the result will be that the child will be more comfortable, attentive and therefore more communicative.
This article was featured in Issue 92 – Developing Social Skills for Life