Most likely we can remember what we were taught about the five senses back in elementary school. Our teachers taught us about smell, taste, touch, hearing and vision, and most likely incorporated activities that involved using each of the senses to help students understand their function. Even if you plug “the senses” into a Google search today it will come up with information about the same five senses. Unbeknownst to most, there are two additional senses that have been left out of the equation; senses that are crucial in understanding how our bodies respond to the environment around us, and how our bodies make sense of movement. These “secret senses” are the proprioceptive and vestibular senses, and they work as a team with the other five senses in order to help our bodies function effectively. None of the senses would work without the rest of the components of the system.
The first "secret sense" is the proprioceptive sense. It is the sense of joint and muscle sensations that provides information of our awareness of body position and space. This sense tells us where our bodies are in relation to other people and objects. It helps us to avoid bumping into things. According to Jill Glomstad in her article about sensory integration "The proprioceptive system senses the direction and velocity of movement, and determines how much effort is needed to grasp and lift objects (for example, picking up a heavy object like a bowling ball, compared to a light object like a pencil.)
"A child seeking propioceptive input may:
- Deliberately bump into objects, seek jumping and crashing opportunities.
- Stamp or slap his feet when walking.
- Enjoy being wrapped up in a blanket, or tucked in tightly at bedtime.
- Chew constantly on objects such as on shirt sleeves, pencils or toys.
- Press hard on a writing implement.
- Handle objects forcefully, and frequently break things."
The second of the "secret senses" is the vestibular sense. It is the sense of position and movement, and provides information about our body's movement, balance and postural control. The Playground is often where this system is targeted and includes activities like swinging, climbing, running, hopping, skipping, and galloping.
"A child seeking out vestibular input may:
- Need to keep moving, and may have trouble sitting still or staying in a seat.
- Repeatedly and vigorously shake her head, rock back and forth, and jump up and down.
- Crave intense movement experiences, such as bouncing on furniture, using a
rocking chair, turning in a swivel chair, assuming upside down positions, or placing her head on the floor and pivoting around it.
- Be a “thrill seeker” enjoying fast moving or spinning playground equipment/rides at an amusement park
- Not get dizzy, even after twirling or spinning rapidly for a lengthy amount of time.
- Enjoy swinging very high and for long periods of time.
- Like seesaws, teeter-totters, or trampolines more than other children."
The activities noted above in relation to the vestibular and proprioceptive systems, are the body's way of obtaining the input needed in order for the child to feel calm, regulated and "normal." A child does not choose to seek out this type of input, it is an automatic response to what his body is telling him he needs.
According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation "Children who have significant difficulty processing and responding to the information that is received through the senses may struggle with 'Sensory Processing Disorder' (SPD). SPD exists when sensory signals do not get organized into appropriate responses. It is best explained by A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., a pioneering occupational therapist and neuroscientist, who compared SPD to a neurological 'traffic jam' that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. These challenges put children with SPD at high risk for many emotional, social and educational problems, including difficulty making friends or being a part of a group, poor self-concept, and academic failure. Children with SPD are often labeled clumsy, uncooperative, disruptive, or 'out of control.' Anxiety, depression, aggression, and/or other serious emotional problems can follow. Parents are often blamed for their children's behavior by people who are unaware of the child's challenges.
"Many kids with Sensory Processing Disorder are intellectually gifted; Their brains are simply wired differently. They need to be taught in ways that are adapted to how they process information, and they need leisure activities, as discussed above, that will target their individual sensory processing needs. The recommended treatment for SPD is Occupational Therapy services with an Occupational Therapist experienced in work related to the sensory system.
The recent tragedy that took place in December at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where 20 year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults for no apparent reason, was a senseless tragedy that our nation will never get over. It has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the media, and rightfully so. Lanza's personal life has been dissected as folks try to make sense of what he did. Unfortunately no sense can be made when such hate, violence, and disregard for others are concerned.
It is now public knowledge that as a child, Lanza had a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder. We know that children with challenges associated with SPD and many other difficulties are at risk for isolation, anxiety, and depression if their needs are not addressed. While this is an extreme case and there is no direct correlation between sensory issues and the type of aggression and violence exhibited by Adam Lanza, it is important to acknowledge, and it cannot be ignored, that when children are struggling the goal should be to get to the root of the problem as soon as possible before it becomes a debilitating social or health concern like it did in the case of Adam Lanza.