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Our senses let us interact with the world around us. They give us a sense of the world and the things objects and people in it. We can often expirence difficulties wiht our senses when we are ill or stressed. For example losing your taste when you have a cold, clothes feeling itchy when you have a fever or bright lights hurting if you had a heavy night the day before.

We have 5 main senses that everyone knows about, however some experts say there are up to 21 different sensory systems in play. This section will focuse on the 5 main sesne we all know about.

Our 5 senses

our 5 senses- touch,sight,taste,smell,sound

Click on the sense below to learn more about it and the difficulties someone may have and how you can help

Touch (The Tactile System)

Our sense of touch allows us to feel the world around us, and plays a vital role in everything we do, whether at home school or during leisure activities. The tactile system is designed to protect us from threats and give our body boundaries.

UNDER-SENSITIVE 

  • holds others tightly - needs to do so before there is a sensation of having applied any pressure

  • has a high pain threshold

  • may be unable to feel food in the mouth

  • may self-harm

  • enjoys heavy objects (eg weighted blankets) on top of them

  • smears faeces as enjoys the texture

  • chews on everything, including clothing and inedible objects. 

You could help by: 

  • for smearing, offering alternatives to handle with similar textures, such as jelly, or cornflour and water

  • for chewing, offering latex-free tubes, straws or hard sweets (chill in the fridge). 

OVER-SENSITIVE 

  • touch can be painful and uncomfortable - people may not like to be touched and this can affect their relationships with others

  • dislikes having anything on hands or feet

  • difficulties brushing and washing hair because head is sensitive

  • may find many food textures uncomfortable

  • only tolerates certain types of clothing or textures. 

"Every time I am touched it hurts; it feels like fire running through my body."  

- Gillingham, G. (1995)

You could help by: 

  • warning the person if you are about to touch them - always approach them from the front

  • remembering that a hug may be painful rather than comforting

  • changing the texture of food (eg purée it)

  • slowly introducing different textures around the person's mouth, such as a flannel, a toothbrush and some different foods

  • gradually introducing different textures to touch, eg have a box of materials available

  • allowing a person to complete activities themselves (eg hair brushing and washing) so that they can do what is comfortable for them

  • turning clothes inside out so there is no seam, removing any tags or labels

  • allowing the person to wear clothes they're comfortable in. 

Sight (The Visual System)

Sensory processing difficulties that affect the visual system can be shown in many different ways. Those with these difficulties may exhibit visual defensiveness where they shield their eyes from bright lights. Those who have difficult coping in busy enviroments  and finding items in complex enviroments may also have visual processing difficulties.

UNDER-SENSITIVE 

  • objects appear quite dark, or lose some of their features

  • central vision is blurred but peripheral vision quite sharp

  • a central object is magnified but things on the periphery are blurred

  • poor depth perception, difficulties with throwing and catching, clumsiness. 

OVER-SENSITIVE 

  • distorted vision - objects and bright lights can appear to jump around

  • images may fragment

  • easier and more pleasurable to focus on a detail rather than the whole object

  • has difficulty getting to sleep as sensitive to the light. 

You could make changes to the environment, such reducing fluorescent lighting, providing sunglasses, using blackout curtains and/or creating a workstation in the classroom - a space or desk with high walls or divides on both sides to block out visual distractions. 

Taste (The Gustatory System)

The Gustatory system is our sense of taste. Chemical receptors in the tounge, closely work with the Olfactory system (Smell) to provide us with information about different types of taste. At certain times when we have a cold for example foods can taste bland. This can be an everyday expirence for those with sesnory processing difficulties.

UNDER-SENSITIVE 

  • likes very spicy foods

  • eats or mouths non-edible items such as stones, dirt, soil, grass, metal, faeces. This is known as pica. 

OVER-SENSITIVE 

  • finds some flavours and foods too strong and overpowering because of very sensitive taste buds. Has a restricted diet

  • certain textures cause discomfort - may only eat smooth foods like mashed potatoes or ice-cream. 

Some autistic people may limit themselves to bland foods or crave very strong-tasting food. As long as someone has some dietary variety, this isn't necessarily a problem. 

Smell (The Olfactory System)

The Olfactory system (smell) and gustatory system are closley linked. For instance if you hold your nose your taste is often impaired. The olfactory sense can also keep us safe and warn of dangers, for example avoiding expired food or notifying us of dangerous chemicals.

UNDER-SENSITIVE 

  • some people have no sense of smell and fail to notice extreme odours (this can include their own body odour). 

  • some people may lick things to get a better sense of what they are. 

You could help by creating a routine around regular washing and using strong-smelling products to distract people from inappropriate strong-smelling stimuli (like faeces). 

OVER-SENSITIVE 

  • smells can be intense and overpowering. This can cause toileting problems

  • dislikes people with distinctive perfumes, shampoos, etc. 

"Smells like dogs, cats, deodorant and aftershave lotion are so strong to me I can't stand it, and perfume drives me nuts."  

- Gillingham, G. (1995),

You could help by using unscented detergents or shampoos, avoiding wearing perfume, and making the environment as fragrance-free as possible. 

Sound (The Auditory System)

Our Auditory system (sound) or sense of hearing allows us to hear someone talking to us, be aware of possible dangers and enjoy our favourite music. The intensity of sounds can also have an effect on our rythum of body movements, either by alerting us or calming us down depending on the frequency. It's why we all enjoy a dance!

UNDER-SENSITIVE 

  • may only hear sounds in one ear, the other ear having only partial hearing or none at all

  • may not acknowledge particular sounds

  • might enjoy crowded, noisy places or bang doors and objects. 

You could help by using visual supports to back up verbal information, and ensuring that other people are aware of the under-sensitivity so that they can communicate effectively. To meet the person’s individual sensory need, include experiences they enjoy in their daily timetable. 

OVER-SENSITIVE 

  • noise can be magnified and sounds become distorted and muddled

  • may be able to hear conversations in the distance

  • inability to cut out sounds – notably background noise - leading to difficulties concentrating. 

"Do you hear noise in your head? It pounds and screeches. Like a train rumbling through your ears." 

- Powell, J., in Gillingham, G. (1995),

You could help by: 

  • shutting doors and windows to reduce external sounds

  • preparing the person before going to noisy or crowded places

  • providing ear plugs and music to listen to

  • creating a screened workstation in the classroom or office, positioning the person away from doors and windows.