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Sensory Processing, Regulation and attachment from a sensory perspective

An Explanation of Sensory Processing Difficulties

Sensory Processing Difficulties are characterised by the inability to accurately process information coming to the brain from the senses. This results in inaccurate judgement of sensory information such as touch, sight, movement, balance, taste, smell and sound.
• Our experience of ourselves and the world is unique and we can all experience ‘hiccups’ in our sensory processing.
• A person can be under or responsive when processing information coming into the different sensory systems, and this can fluctuate across the day.
• This becomes a problem when it is persistent and interferes with daily life and learning.
• Three main areas of difficulty are:
o Turning messages into behaviour that match the intensity and duration of sensory input (tuning in or out, over or under reacting, or regulation)
o movement (planning or stabilising) difficulties (eg dyspraxia or postural problems)
o sensing similarities and differences between sensations.

Sensory Regulation
Our unconscious autonomic nervous system is constantly making minor adjustments to enable our body to match the demands of the environment around us. Eg: when we stand up our heart rate increases and blood pressure rises so that we don’t feint.
• Our autonomic nervous system is divided into
o the sympathetic (fight or flight/ anxiety/survival response), designed to speed up our bodies ready to cope with a perceived threat
o the parasympathic (feed and breed/relaxation response) designed to enable us to sleep, digest food and relax.

Although we can influence our unconscious nervous system by our thoughts ( eg thinking about a worry can trigger an anxiety attack for some, or remembering a holiday can make you relax), it responds largely on an unconscious level to sensory input.

• Our arousal or ‘alert state’ is governed by a balance between these two unconscious systems: if our sympathetic nervous system is triggered we become anxious or aggressive, if our parasympathetic nervous system is triggered we become lethargic.
• If totally overloaded , our parasympathetic nervous system can be triggered and we completely ’shut down’ as a survival behaviour.
• Ideally, we should spend most of our time with an even balance between the two. This balance is central to our emotional wellbeing and ability to learn (see Appendix II: Alert States).

Emotional Regulation and Attachment Behaviours

The sensory processing mechanisms, alarm system that triggers arousal levels, and emotional centres of the brain operate largely unconsciously, are closely linked, and influence each other greatly.
• In infancy we develop attachment behaviours to draw caregivers to us so that our physical and emotional needs can be met.

• Caregivers in turn respond to our signals for help and meet our needs through comforting and nurturing us primarily through touch, eye contact, movement and meeting our physical needs (hunger, thirst, sleep etc).

• Our sensory systems develop through these caring activities (eg bathing, feeding and play) and our caregivers provide the right balance between calming and alerting sensory stimulation.

• Through this we begin to develop our capability to regulate our sensory and emotional responses more independently and can separate from our caregivers for increasing lengths of time without undue distress.

Trauma in infancy can disrupt this process and set the alarm system to mistakenly interpret sensory and emotional events as dangerous and threatening to our survival.
• This can cause the child to over-respond emotionally (Reactive ‘Fight or Flight’) or shut down (Avoidant). These automatic survival behaviours can develop into patterns that interrupt the child’s ability to learn, play and relate to others.
• Supporting the child to use sensory strategies to regulate their emotional state can be a useful tool in changing these patterns over time.
• Learning to use regulating sensory strategies for themselves can help to change stress patterns and ‘reset’ their alarm system, helping them to feel calmer and ‘just right’ in themselves and begin to learn how to stay more emotionally regulated.
• From this position, children are more able to understand their own feelings and then other peoples- this is key for relating to others, developing play skills and learning.
• This approach:
o Uses environmental enrichment to support the child in finding the sensory input they need to feel regulated in their immediate environment at school and home
o Supports key caregivers and the child to link survival behaviours and sensory strategies that calm and organize, or feel ‘just right’.

Sensory Attachment Children’s Books: available from Aldertree Press.
o ‘The Scared Gang’ by Éadaoin Bhreathnach:

For online information about sensory attachment interventions:

o http://www.sensoryattachmentintervention.com/Documents/Just%20Right%20State%20Programme%20Executive%20Summary.pdf

(with thanks to my very clever and brilliant colleague, Isabel Ball, for putting it so succinctly).

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