Sunday, August 14, 2011

Designing to Address Sensory Processing Challenges

It's a topic that we seem to come in contact with often but one that I've been researching a bit more thoroughly lately in the hopes of finding ways to design learning experiences to address sensory need rather than trying to use only stand alone on the side responses.  So I'm summarizing what I know about sensory regulation as well as including some articles at the end that I thought had some good ideas around ways to think about needs during planning.

Lets start at the beginning.  We have seven sensory systems:
  1. tactile
  2. vestibular
  3. proprioception 
  4. visual 
  5. auditory 
  6. gustatory 
  7. olfactory
For each sensory system, people will fall on a different place on a threshold continuum.  At either end of the continuum a person would have a high threshold (take a lot before they notice sensory stimulation) or low threshold (take little to notice sensory stimulation). When someone falls on an extreme end for these thresholds support it is important to recognize it and ensure that things are set up in a way that will work for that person.  It would seem as simple as knowing which systems are high and low and then either increasing or decreasing stimulation for that single system so as to provide for optimum sensory input/processing

But it is actually more complicated than that because you have to factor in an individual person's self-regulation strategy when thinking about interventions.  Some people are active self-regulators (physically do something to address their personal threshold) while others are passive (won't do anything and just emotionally respond or "meltdown").  Ironically the passive regulators are the ones who are active (sometimes referred to as explosive) in their responses and the active regulators are passive (withdrawn or implosive) in their responses.  A sensory diet can be used to regulate either but it really shouldn't be something that stands alone because there are many ways to set up daily routines, activities and learning to allow for ongoing sensory needs for the individuals who have sensory challenges.

What you end up with are 4 different categories of sensory needs for each of the 7 sensory areas (so really 28 different different combinations when it comes to "intervention"):
  1. low registration - passive self regulation and high sensory threshold
  2. sensation seeking - active self regulation and high sensory threshold
  3. sensation avoidance - active self regulation and low sensory threshold
  4. sensory sensitivity - passive self-regulation and low sensory threshold
To find out more, check out
  1. Supporting Children to Participate Successfully in Everyday Life by Using Sensory Processing Knowledge  - great explanation of all of this as well as tables that link to how to support each of the four different needs in a variety of different home activities (go to page 91 of the document to see these).
  2. Asperger Syndrome and Sensory Processing: A Conceptual Model and Guidance for Intervention Plan - if you go down to page 174-75 there is some great background information and then towards the end of the article they have case studies for students in each of the categories and suggestions for how to address sensory needs in school.
  3. Sensory Processing Ideas to Increase Engagement - A quick and simple summary of sensory processing as well as checklists to help in finding out in which sensory quadrant someone might fall.

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