We all can name the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. But did you know humans actually have as many as 8, 21, or even 33 distinct senses?
Researchers are still debating what constitutes a sense. However, we do know our senses are tied to almost everything we do. Knowing when you need to use the restroom or put on a jacket, modulating your voice, or knowing when you’re upside down—these are all examples sensory processing.
Sensory Processing Issues
Sensory processing issues occur when the brain fails to recognize, misinterprets, or responds inappropriately to sensory information. It’s estimated that 1 in 20 people have some sensory processing issue. However, the exact symptoms can vary wildly from person to person.
Over-responsive individuals, or avoiders, feel overloaded and overwhelmed by their senses. They may be bothered by faint smells, changes in temperature, or background noises others can’t detect.
Sensory cravers, or seekers, have an inexhaustible appetite for sensory stimulation. They may be constantly seeking out bright lights, loud music, certain textures, or physical contact with others.
Those with Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD) are under-responsive to sensory stimuli. They may have difficulties detecting, understanding, and responding to sound, light, or touch.
Almost everyone has some degree of sensory sensitivity or craving, even if these manifest in minor, unobtrusive ways. Have you ever felt a twinge of pain during a loud movie or become a little overwhelmed while shopping in a bright, busy store? Do you chew on your pen while working, prefer clothing with specific textures, or love riding roller coasters? Each of these sensations, habits, and preferences are the result of the way your brain reacts to sensory information, often without you even noticing.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can be diagnosed when one’s sensory sensitivities, sensory cravings, or inability to pick up sensory cues has a noticeable, negative impact on daily functioning. (Click here to learn more about SPD.) Sensory processing issues are also prevalent in individuals with autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other cognitive disabilities.
Studies have shown as many as 1 in 6 children have sensory processing issues severe enough to impact their daily functioning. These children often have a hard time fitting in with their peers. They may show signs of anxiety or depression, seem aloof or withdrawn, struggle socially and academically, or appear clumsy. They may have trouble knowing how loudly they’re speaking, how close they’re standing to others, or how much force they’re exerting on objects like pencils or toys. Many have learned to cope with their symptoms in ways that might appear odd to others, such as rocking, constantly learning on walls or furniture, or sucking on their thumbs.
Because sensory processing issues are so widespread, increasing awareness and accommodations can have a tremendously positive impact on the special needs community as a whole.