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Understanding Senses & Neurodiversity

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Understanding Senses & Neurodiversity

 

* Trigger warning for brief discussion of childhood trauma from abuse and neglect.

 We have five sensory processing systems: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory (e.g.,  sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste).  These systems work in coordination to assist us with perceiving our own realities.  These systems are referred to as our exterior sensory systems.  Less known, we also have two internal senses: our proprioceptive and vestibular senses.  The proprioceptive sense involves how our deep muscle tissues interpret pressure from external sources.   Proprioceptive feedback is ultimately calming.  We get a “dose” of proprioceptive feedback when we are hugged, exercise, exert our physical strength, massage our muscles, etc.  The vestibular sense helps us with balance and determining where our body is in space.  The vestibular sense can become increasingly easier to overstimulate with age, leading to motion sickness.  It’s the vestibular sense that makes roller coasters less fun in adulthood than they were in childhood.

In part, our prenatal and earliest childhood experiences help to solidify and integrate these senses. In the first three years of life, consistent and nurturing caregiving affords neuron connections in the brain that shape how we perceive our senses.  However, if you are part of the neurodivergent community or experienced childhood trauma from abuse, neglect, or inconsistent caregiving you are more likely to experience hypo- or hyper- sensitive responses from your senses.  In cases of trauma, your triggers for traumatic memories may be closely connected with your senses.  To be clear, this does not equate to pathology. 

It helps if we conceptualize each of our senses on a continuum or spectrum - on one side is extreme hyposensitivity and on the other is extreme hypersensitivity.  Each of our senses may fall somewhere on this spectrum.  For the neurodivergent community and survivors of trauma, senses are more likely to fall closers to the extreme end of the spectrum.  Again, this does mean there is something "wrong", "unhealthy", or "abnormal" that requires a language of pathology.  

Hyposensitivity means you are less stimulated in one or many of your senses.  Hyposensitivity can lead to sensory-seeking behaviors to meet a sensory need.  For example,  children needing vestibular feedback may engage in behaviors such as jumping repeatedly and spinning in circles to receive more stimulation. When needing proprioceptive feedback, they may climb or crawl on furniture, chew on items like their shirts or necklaces, and shake their legs when seated.   As another example,  people with hyposensitive auditory (hearing) systems may talk loudly, sing to themselves, or watch television at a loud volume. 

On the other side of the sensory spectrum, we have hypersensitivity.  When we are hypersensitive in a sense, we tend to engage in sensory-avoidant behaviors.   Those of us described as “picky” eaters may become overstimulated by the flavors or smells of certain foods.  We may feel anxious and overwhelmed in public settings because of loud sounds and too much visual stimuli.

We, as individuals, have our own unique sensory “profile”.  We may be hypersensitive in one sense, while hyposensitive in another. 

Part of self-care and care for others involves understanding the diversity that exists when in comes to our senses.  In the context of relationships, we must be able to gain insight into our own sensory needs and in turn, communicate those to others.  For example, in our home my husband and I quickly learned at the start of our relationship that our auditory processing was very different.  My husband needs ongoing auditory input.  He talks aloud and sings to himself (and our pets), listens to music while working, and keeps the T.V. on for “background” noise.  When he is falling asleep, he puts his earbuds in to listen to “ambient” sounds.  He is closer to the hyposensitive side of the spectrum.  I fall into the more hypersensitive category.  I need silence. I crave it.  I’m known for turning down the T.V. volume and putting on the closed captioning.  I’ve never been the type to listen to “background” music while working - if the music has lyrics I will find myself paying attention more to what is being said than what I’m doing.  Neither of us are “wrong” or “unhealthy”.  We simply experience sounds in different ways.  One finds comfort in sounds while the other finds it in the quiet. Once we understood we were biologically interpreting sound in different ways, we were able to communicate and find ways to make the home cozy for us both. 

When thinking about how we run our store, we want to make sure we are welcoming and accommodating to all people along the sensory spectrum.  We want to foster an environment where our clients feel cared for and comfortable.  We want to remain aware of neurodiversity. 

We know that people from neurodivergent or trauma backgrounds may be hesitant to go clothing shopping; it can become a sensory overload and at times, even triggering.  While we seek to be intuitively attuned to what clients may need - more or less personal space, more or less conversation, softer or louder music, burning incenses or fresh air, a sip of water or coffee,  etc. - we also welcome open communication from our customers regarding what you need.  We try to be intentional in not only the items we curate, but the space itself is meant to provide a calming, tranquil environment, where clients feel safe.

 

Knowledge for this blog gained from the following sources:

Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) educator training

"The Out of Sync Child" by Carol Stock Kranowit, M.A. 

"The Connected Child" by Karen Purvis, Ph. D and David Cross, Ph. D

"Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wished You Knew" by Ellen Nothobm 

"Throw Away the Master's Tools: Liberating Ourselves from the Pathology Paradigm" from neurocosmopolitanism.com