We all can name the quintessential 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 actually constitutes a sense, but 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, walking upstairs without having to watch your feet, knowing when you’re upside down—these are all examples of ways your brain successfully processes sensory information.
Practically everyone has some degree of sensory sensitivity or craving, even if these manifest in minor, relatively unobtrusive ways. Have you ever felt a small 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 you’re 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 receives and reacts to sensory information, often without you even noticing.
Sensory Processing Issues
Sensory processing issues occur when the brain fails to recognize, misinterprets, or responds inappropriately to sensory information in the environment. It’s estimated that 1 in 20 people have some sensory processing issue, though the exact symptoms can vary wildly from person to person.
Over-responsive individuals, or avoiders, often feel overloaded and overwhelmed by everyday situations and may be bothered by faint smells, changes in temperature, or background noises others can’t detect.
Sensory cravers, or seekers, have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for sensory stimulation and may be constantly seeking out bright lights, loud music, particular textures, or prolonged physical contact with others.
Those with sensory discrimination challenges are under-responsive to stimuli in their environment and have difficulties detecting, interpreting, and responding to sensory input in a timely manner.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can be diagnosed when one’s sensory sensitivities, sensory cravings, or inability to pick up internal/external 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.
Recent 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, appear 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 or other objects.
Because sensory processing issues are so widespread and comorbid with other disabilities, increasing awareness and accommodations for these children can have a tremendously positive impact on the special needs community as a whole.