The Five Senses: More Important than I Realized (and not all inclusive)

Image credit to Sensory Friendly Solutions

Do you remember when you were younger learning about your five senses? Maybe your preschool or kindergarten teacher used pumpkins in the fall to help you learn how to explore what you saw, touched, tasted, felt, or heard as you carved pumpkins. Maybe as you continued to grow as a young writer in elementary school, your teachers taught you how to draw in your audience by including your five senses to help your reader visualize what you saw and feel what you felt? The five senses are more than a creative writing technique. Just like our earliest teachers modeled for us, our five senses help us experience the world around us and make meaning of our experiences. 

Until last spring, this was the extent of the focus I put on the five senses: being aware of our God given ability to experience the world and to use our senses to communicate with others. My perspective on the power of noticing and utilizing our sensory intake all changed when one of the unique blessings in my life received a sensory processing disorder diagnosis. My thinking further changed when I realized that in the occupational therapy and child development communities there are three additional senses included: vestibular (movement), proprioceptive (pressure), and interoception (internal organ senses). I had read about these senses in the past, but it’s different when you are studying out of a textbook versus soaking in all of the information you can to help meet your child’s needs. 

 Fellow Momma of a child with a sensory processing disorder diagnosis and writer of Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences calls her son “sensational” when she refers to his sensory differences. (Side note: I am listening to her book on Audible, and it’s my favorite sensory processing resource so far. She is so relatable, faith-filled, and informative at the same time.) The description “sensational” resonated with me, so from now on, I will use that same term.  

Before we dig into what is “sensory processing disorder” and ways that we can strengthen our central nervous and sensory processing systems, I want to paint a picture of what sensory processing struggles might look like to help us gain an awareness of why the sensational children in our lives might react in ways that are unexpected or not the preferred way our society functions. 

Common Sensory ReactionsSensory Seeking Reasoning
Children with picky clothing preferencesKids who have extra sensitive tactile or touch responses may have a hard time with rough fabrics/materials. They may prefer well worn clothing or clothing without buttons. Other children might want extra tight clothing to help their bodies recognize space and prefer materials that are stretchy and snug like Under Armor shirts.
Children with picky food preferencesKids who have an extra sensitive sense of smell, taste, and texture can develop strong aversions to some foods. A common “go to” snack for kids who are seeking oral stimulation is crunchy snacks like pretzels.
Children stuffing rocks or other items in their pockets or shoesSome children feel more steady and calm when their body has more weight to weigh down their arms or legs. The extra pressure and weight of the rocks or other items helps some children recognize where their body is in location to space. 
Children with sensitivity to sounds (putting their hands over their ears)Some children have a higher sensitivity to sound. Noise canceling or reducing headphones might help the sounds not be as intense and overwhelming to their senses. 
Children seeking quiet, dark places like hiding under a tableSome children feel overwhelmed when entering a new environment when other people are already in the room. Some children feel calmer and their sensory systems find relief when they are in quiet, darker places. 
Sensory Reactions and Reasoning Chart

The ways kids and adults experience the world through their sensory system can be so varied. There are many other atypical ways that children may process sensory inputs, but hopefully this helps us think of the unique children in our lives who might be seeking sensory input in ways we wouldn’t expect and the reason they might seek that input. To help us compare typical and atypical sensory processing examples, I appreciate Carol Kronowitz’s, author of The Out of Sync Child, definition of effective sensory processing as, “the ability to organize sensory information for daily life. They take in sensations of touch, movement, sight, and sound coming in from their bodies and the world around them, and they respond in a well-regulated way” (p. xxi). 

When I continued to read Kronowitz’s descriptions of what sensory processing disorder looks and feels like, I stopped in my tracks and tears slid down my cheeks. She wrote that children with sensory processing disorder, “seem to have everything going for them. They’re healthy, intelligent, and dearly loved. Yet they struggle with the basic skills of managing their responses to ordinary sensations of planning and organizing their actions, and of regulating their attention, and activity levels” (p. 9). Reading her description felt like she had a window into the life of our sensational child and could speak straight to our experience. Suddenly I felt comforted to know that our experience resonated with other families who have walked a similar journey. Our child is dearly loved, so inquisitive and creative, and very healthy. Yet he also needs help to learn how to notice his sensory reactions and discover more productive ways to calm or engage his sensory system.  

Recognizing this helps us realize that all behavior is communication. When our sensational children behave in certain ways, either socially acceptable or not, they are communicating with us how they are experiencing over, under, or just right sensory stimulation. (Anyone channeling their inner Goldilocks? Maybe the children’s fairy tale author was on to something here!) 

One of my biggest misconceptions about children’s behaviors is that I thought children who hid under tables or stuffed rocks in their pockets were being disobedient. We asked them to keep the rocks on the playground and to come in and sit in a chair. I didn’t realize that some children have an extra sensitive sensory system. Some children need help knowing how to manage sensory inputs when they feel over or under stimulated. They might be seeking ways to work out of the fight, flight, or freeze feeling. When they go under a table, their sensory system feels calm. They aren’t trying to be defiant when they constantly seek objects to weigh down their bodies. They are seeking to calm their bodies. 

Although consequences, clear boundaries, and structure are helpful for all children, consequences can’t change the behavior when the reason for the behavior is sensory related. I needed to find the root cause of why my sensational child was seeking the inputs to help him figure out a way to proactively meet the needs of the sensation he was experiencing.

Another helpful frame for this thinking comes from Dr. Becky Bailey, author of Conscious Discipline and Managing Emotional Mayhem, “This behavior is not happening to me; it is happening in front of me.” This mantra is now playing on repeat in my mind when I am working through tricky situations with the sensational children I love both personally and professionally. Our sensory systems interact with our central nervous system and cause us to want to fight, flight, or freeze in what we perceive to be stressful situations, because we feel unsafe. The goal of our sensory system is to help us: 

  1.  survive
  2. feel safe
  3. learn 

When we are feeling stressed and anxious, thinking logically can be extremely challenging, if not impossible, until we can calm down our central nervous system. Unfortunately sometimes I focus so much on the behavior and its impact on me as an adult that I forget to look at the cause of the behavior. As an adult, instead of feeling frustrated for how our sensational child’s behaviors are impacting me, I am learning to see my unique blessing through “sensory goggles.” What is my child’s behavior communicating to me? What can I do to empower my child to calm his sensory and central nervous system? 

In upcoming blogs, we will begin exploring ways we can create stronger bodies physically to receive and work through sensory inputs. We all, adults and children included, have different ways our bodies respond to sensory inputs. We don’t need a sensory processing disorder diagnosis to need help at times when we feel under or over stimulated. Especially when stress continues to weigh heavy with the pandemic that never seems to end. Until then, please know that you and your children are “fully loved, accepted, complete, and known” by our Heavenly Father (important truth from one of my favorite Bible teachers, Jennifer Rothschild, in her Hosea Bible study). The Lord has a beautiful plan being written for each child, and I look forward to experiencing God’s glory through each of our children. 

Between now and then, I would love to know what resonates with you and the children in your life. Are you noticing unique ways they are responding to things they see, smell, taste, touch, hear, move, seek pressure, or respond to internal organ cues? What might be some of your hunches as to what is causing them to respond in that way? I would love to learn and grow with you as we seek to empower our children to recognize what’s happening in their sensory systems and find ways to meet those needs in a more effective way. 

Helpful Resource Links:

Conscious Discipline and Managing Emotional Mayhem: The Five Steps for Self-Regulation by Becky Bailey

Hosea: Unfailing Love Changes Everything by Jennifer Rothschild

Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences by Rebecca Duvall Scott and Hannah Ragan

The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Karanowitz


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