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Making Sense of the Senses

Making Sense of the Senses
Published: 9 December 2016

At Frontier Support we resolve people problems by providing imaginative, specialist care and support to people with a variety of needs including Learning Disabilities, Autism, Aspergers, Epilepsy, Mental & Physical Health issues and Challenging Behaviour.

We work closely with Dr. John Biddulph is a specialist provider of autism and Asperger Syndrome training, courses, mentoring, and diagnosis.  John is a visiting tutor for a Postgraduate Certificate course in Asperger Syndrome run jointly by the NAS and Sheffield Hallam University and an undergraduate course in Psychology. He is an external examiner for PhD studies in autism.

His input is invaluable and enables us to ensure that we are putting the people we support at the centre of what we do. Here he gives some excellent advice for those supporting people with sensory differences.

Sensory Differences – Making Sense of the Senses

The relationship between the brain and the senses is hugely complex. Experiences which are initially a collection of sensations become perceptions. Then, the brain reacts to this perception and a reaction is triggered. Sometimes, if the perception is unusual, so are the responses. This process is sensory integration.

We all experience sensory integration. But some individuals experience hypo and/or hyper sensation. An unusual response to sensory experiences does not on its own mean that a person is autistic. It may barely affect a person, or it may make particular situations that are not problematic to most people unbearable. Smells may be particularly strong, lines and features can become blurred, lighting overwhelmingly bright, or an individual could have difficulties with certain textures or tastes. What is accepted as a ‘normal’ environment can become distressing, even intolerable – and this may vary day to day.

When supporting a person with sensory differences, it is vital to keep accurate and regularly updated records of their sensory presentation. An audit document may be used to record and monitor their presentation and a profile created to identify an ideal sensory environment or how to modify a less than ideal environment.

Organisation of the environment

The environment might be improved by considering low arousal levels. This not only includes the physical environment – including limited visual display, plain coloured walls and functional furniture – but also the entire nature of the environment – minimal language, supportive use of symbols, visual or auditory cues such as music, and a quiet, calm atmosphere established by staff.

Areas could be designed to support the individual by reducing visual distractions and emphasising the ‘start’ and ‘finish’ of an activity.

Stress and Anxiety

Reducing stress and anxiety will reduce the impact of sensory differences. In turn, reduced sensory stimulation or increased access to desired and safe sensory experiences will also reduce stress and anxiety.

Activities that support sensory sensitivities and needs including safe, supervised physical activities such as trampolining, quiet areas, low lit areas or coloured lights, safe access to preferred tastes or smells, and many more.

Did you know???

One of the seven (yes, seven) senses we experience is our Proprioceptive sense. Our sense of Proprioception is to do with the perception of the body and position of the limbs.

So, someone who has differences with their proprioceptive sense might like to wear lots of layers (even on warm days); they might prefer tighter clothing, wrist bands; have lots of things in their pockets, and enjoy big, and I mean big, hugs! Differences in the proprioceptive can also explain eating differences such as never feeling full.

This same person might also be hyper-sensitive to touch so imagine someone who presents with strong reactions to and avoids light touch, says ‘ouch’ if someone brushes past them or does not like their teeth being brushed. They may avoid the shower but love a bath! This person also loves big hugs. That might appear quite contradictory but it’s all part of their sensory profile and the sooner we record, share and most importantly provide an appropriate and safe sensory environment, the better.

There is so much more to say about sensory differences that this article could go on forever. The good news is this: find out about sensory differences, find out about the sensory differences of the person you support and then plan, record and do something appropriate to support their sensory profile (you might need to take advice from a medical professional). And then person you support will be happier, less stressed and with lower anxiety levels. And so will you!

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