Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sensory Processing or Integration in Children and Adults

Greetings from the 20 Stuffers!

You might be wondering about the title of this blog -- it comes from my foggy brain attempting to explain to my husband that I had moved 20 items at a friend's house as she was packing up to move, but I couldn't think of the right words, so in my tired state I said that I had moved twenty stuff. Mr. 20Stuff loved that and named his blog after it, then asked me and my foggy brain to take over the blog.

My brain sometimes has difficulty organizing all the sensory information it receives during the day. For instance, if I think I smell something burning, I have to turn off the radio in order to "smell" the smell and think about what is happening. My brain cannot organize both the smell and the noise at the same time.

At this moment, I am aware of the sounds of the clicking of the keys on my keyboard, the vibration on the wooden desk each time I make a key stroke, the space heater motor running beside me, two clocks ticking in this and a nearby room, and vehicle engines running on the main street about four blocks away. If I turn off the heater, I am instantly soothed, but then I become aware of the hum of the refrigerator and the very slight "thinking" sounds made by my computer tower. My left ear is mildly plugged from a recent cold, and I am aware of the difference in the way my two ears are receiving sound. AND ALL OF THIS DRIVES ME CRAZY. And there aren't even any children in the room. :-) There is no TV playing, there are no children fussing, there is no sweet husband in the room asking questions. It's just me and all these ridiculously loud objects ticking and humming and rumbling away.

Researchers refer to these noise issues collectively as being "audio defensive." Please don't ask me which researchers -- I couldn't tell you. :-)

I have similar issues with touch. My poor little brain can only organize so much "touch" information at a time. I am "tactile defensive."

Our brains are designed to organize the hundreds of thousands of pieces of sensory information that come our way each hour of the day. When we cannot, we are said to have sensory integration issues or sensory processing issues, and for some people, this disorganization is at the point of being called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Sensory Integration Disorder (SID).

Researchers have focused more on these issues in children, since by adulthood most of us with these issues have learned to cope in one way or another, even though our lives are less successful than they might have been without these challenges, or at the least we have had to "work harder than other people" to achieve our accomplishments.

Sensory integration issues can happen in any one, in any person's brain, but seem to be predominate in people who have experienced some kind of trauma (neglect, abuse, abandonment, malnourishment, disease, accident, etc.) in early childhood, so they are more common in adopted or fostered children than in the so-called "general population." Consequently we adoptive parents tend to talk frequently about sensory integration -- we can easily watch the effects of sensory integration difficulties in our children.

Recently I read somewhere, maybe in a Jean Ayers book, a description of what it is like for a child with sensory integration issues to, say, take a test in class. Imagine for a moment that you are delivering packages in an unfamiliar building, when suddenly the electricity goes off, sirens begin to blare, thick smoke fills the air, and cold water shoots from the fire prevention system above. You might be able to find your way to your destination (or to an exit door!), but all your senses are bombarded with extra information that you must process in addition to finding your way while carrying and protecting these packages. A child with sensory integration issues has one or more senses that have been bombarded during his school day, and now he must find his way through this test while attempting to navigate the senses. Depending on what his senosory issues are, his experience of the test might feel to him like the equivalent of being unexpectedly surrounded by thick smoke or trapped in a dark room or feeling cold water suddenly splash across his skin or having sirens blaring in his ears. His brain struggles to organize all the information. And his teacher, friends, or parents decide that he is "slow," because he cannot pass the test even though he knew the information.

Our oldest daughter has cerebral palsy, and we can observe her struggles in coping with the sensory information that bombards her each day. Not long ago I made friends with an occupational therapist (OT) who has three adopted children of her own, and she is particularly aware of the needs of children like our oldest daughter and offered to evaluate and treat her for free during this time in which we are unemployed and don't have insurance. While speaking with her about Sunshine, I began to talk about our middle daughter, Pumpkin, and the many issues she has physically and emotionally in any given day. My OT friend spent three hours visiting with me, asking questions. At the end of the visit (and after having observed my children during those three hours), she said that Sunshine's issues are actually quite straight-forward and very clinical, but that Pumpkin's are far more complex. Just the same, she is confident that several years of OT can make a big difference in both girls' lives.

Thinking about my girls' issues led me to investigate a bit of information about my own issues. I found an online self-evaluation with 70 or 80 questions regarding sensory integration and followed through with it. The evaluation calls for the participant to weight her responses from zero to five, with five being the "worst", regarding various sensory-related questions/issues such as, "The ticking of a clock or droning of a machine can be almost unbearable." I wrote a "4" on more than half the questions, while my husband found that fewer than a dozen of the questions applied to him in any way, and even those he felt were "coincidental" and not a "pattern". My responses definitely fit a pattern -- I am audio and tactile defensive.

There are seven (some people say eight) senses. The first five we are taught about in elementary school: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Two more include the vestibular -- our sense of our physical presence in space (i.e., where our hand is in relation to a nearby hot stove),  and proprioceptive -- our sense of movement within space (i.e., whether we're upside down or right side up, spinning on a swing or standing still in a crowded amusement park line).  I do not remember what the eighth sense is that people have suggested -- maybe it's the nearly mystical "sixth sense" that was suggested in a thriller movie a few years ago about a boy who sensed the presence of dead people. :-)

If we are not "neurotypical" like my husband who does not have these issues, we can be either hyper- or hypo-sensitive to sensory information, or a frequently changing combination of both. For instance, if we are lacking in sensitivity to touch, as one of my daughters is, we might be continually craving and seeking out more touch, bumping into people, pulling and tugging on people, unable to judge when we have done so too much or too little.

Well, my brain is rapidly shutting down for the evening, so I am going to gracelessly close this post without segue to a tidy conclusion -- or without editing. I just wanted to discuss these rambling thoughts before they leaked out and away from me.

Ms. 20 Stuff


  1. Great post - I know what you're talking about with sensory integration issues in adults. I have problems particularly with sounds and how things feel. It's hard to sometimes fake not having problems in public, but I learned to manage.
    I've learned not to throw a tantrum in public if the seam on my sock is driving me up the wall :) (I did that as a child).
    The seams in the legs of jeans still drive me nuts, so I compensate by buying either skinny or wide leg jeans. Skinny jeans are tight enough that the seam doesn't rub and wide leg are loose enough that the seam doesn't rub. To further compensate, I only own 3 pairs of jeans so I can acclimate to how they feel. I recently "rediscovered" sweatpants. Ruh-roh.
    Let's not mention shirt tags.
    Along the lines of getting used to clothes, I find that I will buy multiples of the same thing, so they all feel the same, like running shorts, sports bras, underwear, undershirts, etc.
    As for sounds, continuous background sounds that most people automatically tune out tend to drown out even simple conversation and I have trouble hearing what others are saying. Even background conversation can become a distraction. The repetitive background noises drive me crazy, Beeps from the microwave, oven, washer, MUST stop immediately or be prevented.
    Now you must think I'm nuts, but I'm pretty normal otherwise. I'm 29 and married; I'm a musician and I teach music lessons; I'm an athlete; I'm in a mentoring position in both music and sports; I also want to adopt.
    Anyway, I need to go have some coffee and practice flute :)
    No good segue/sign off for me!

  2. Christina, thank you for your note and thoughts. I am gradually becoming aware that adults can struggle with sensory integration issues -- all my life I've just thought I was "weird," but now I know I have company. :-)

    May all your clothes fit comfortably! :-)