Sensory Challenges have been talked about or advocated in social media, however, many parents and practitioners still having difficulties to notice the challenges they or their children go through on daily basis. It’s mostly because of many challenges are not as how they seems. We have made a 20-ish minute video to bring you the overview and how we see it through the lends from Traditional Chinese Medicines.
The following is the link to video and transcript from the video
[Elliott] - Tell me a bit about sensory challenges…
[Nicole] - Sensory challenges can be many things by itself. It can also mean many things to each family and individual. This term has been discussed and talked about for some time, but still is not understood well enough by parents, caregivers, and practitioners.
[Nicole] - Hi, I'm Nicole, Your Atypical Wellbeing Resource. Today, we'll explore "Sensory Challenges" you or your little ones may experience.
[Nicole] - To understand what sensory challenges are, we first need to grasp the concept of 'sensory'. Sensory simply refers to our biological system that processes information from both internal and external environments.
[Elliott] - How many senses do we have?
[Nicole] - While scientists are still debating whether humans have between 14 and 20 senses, depending on how you define a sense, most of us are familiar with 8 to 9 basic senses.
[Elliott] - What are the different types of senses?
[Nicole] - They include visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), tactile and nociception (touch and pain), thermoception (perception of temperature), vestibular (balance and spatial orientation), and pro-prio-ception (body awareness).
[Elliott] - How about in TCM?
[Nicole] - In Traditional Chinese Medicine, some branches of Daoist and Buddhist teachings, the concept of senses can extend beyond physical sensation and consciousnesses.
HOW SENSES WORK
[Nicole] - Our brain has 12 pairs of cranial nerves that play key roles in sensory processing and motor functions. The process starts by receiving sensory inputs such as what we see, hear, touch, feel, or the place we are in, through receptors all over the body.
[Nicole] - These receptors send information through our nerves to a brain area called the Thalamus, except for smell, which bypasses this step. Then these signals are read in multiple areas of the brain, to help us create a clear idea of what's going on so we can respond to those stimuli.
[Elliott] - How does TCM see it?
[Nicole] - On the other hand, Traditional Chinese Medicines and Qi Gong practices see the body's sensory system as more than just focusing on the brain.
They believe in 12 pairs of main meridians. This system branches out to our toes and fingertips from the center of the body, and they work closely with our brain and sensory functions. Outside of TCM, it’s studied under the name Primo Vascular System by scientists. This system is never separated from any organs, emotions, memories, or other systems and is part of the overall vitality. This is just like we are individuals, but we are also part of society as a whole.
What this means is… when one place is sluggish, and another place is stagnate, then parts of our body or senses may start acting a little different.
Imagine when we go to work or school during the busy commute hours on rainy days. The trash or broken trees are blown to the road which can cause slow, uneven traffic flow and even lead to the tunnel being jammed.
Now imagine a clear sunny day, with the cars flowing freely on the roads. Remember how you feel on those days when it’s just a breeze getting to your destination.
This idea promotes the harmony between our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and environmental well-beings as a complete eco system. One little change in the flow can affect the entire systems overall stability and health.
SENSORY IN NEURODIVERSE REALITY
[Elliott] - How does the sensory system apply to the neurodiverse community?
[Nicole] - Some individuals within our community may find sensory processing rather challenging, especially if we have an intense limbic system, which regulates behavioral and emotional responses.
With stagnation in meridians, or ones with structural damage, the person may feel elevated sensitivity. These challenges can lead to difficulty in filtering and prioritizing information, causing feelings of being overwhelmed or distracted.
This situation is like having "blockages" in our sensory system, which can influence our reactions, experiences, and even create a ripple effect in other aspects of our lives.
Triggers and Real Life Examples
[Nicole] - Everyone is likely to experience sensory challenges. The way we express our discomfort and sensory overload are different among individuals. Lets take what we’ve just learned and reflect on something we may have experienced as children.
For me, one of the most challenging situations, other than being in front of a camera, was attending dinner gatherings a few times a year throughout my childhood and early adulthood. My family and their associates would host these massive dinner gatherings where hundreds of people would attend.
Every single time I stepped into a Chinese restaurant, I was struck by the bright red and gold colors all over the place with an intense lighting. The atmosphere was filled with loud noises of people talking (excitedly) and yelling, along with the sounds of mahjong being played across multiple tables.
My visual and auditory senses were overwhelmed. My body would be marinated in the smell of cigarette smoke. Remember, indoor smoking was legal back in the 80s and 90s. While I believe that expressing appreciation and hosting dinners is a wonderful gesture, I was often overwhelmed by the lavishness of sites, smells, and sounds. I found myself physically exhausted from anxiety and sensory overload, unsure of how to act, and trying to mask my feelings as if everything was fine.
[Elliott] - What did you do to make it through?
[Nicole] - I would push through until the end, but the effort left me so tired that I would avoiding conversation during and for some time after.
This response was a way for me to conserve energy, just like our phone's low battery mode. Unfortunately, it was often mistaken for being rude or distant.
[Nicole] - Sensory challenges can be quite subtle, noticeable to only a few individuals as well as the person it affects. Also, they can be so widely accepted in society that they end up being overlooked because they are considered "normal" or “mitigated”.
Another way some respond to over or under-stimulating events in life is through "stimming". Stimming means self soothing or self-stimulation in order to cope, distract, or comfort the individual.
It is more than just a physical response. It's often used as a way to communicate and self-regulate. This is because our body has this self-regulating mechanism. We are constantly finding ways to help ourselves stay at that homeostasis.
This might seem foreign to some parents but it actually is very common because everyone stims.
In a neuronormative setting, many people stim or practice self-soothing without even realizing it. This might include sitting in a rocking chair, shaking legs, or being very particular about certain textures of clothing to find comfort.
Now, if we recognize these self-regulation practices in neurotypical individuals, they're seen as normal.
However, when observed in neurodivergent individuals, they may be misunderstood as behavioral problems. A lot of times, this is due to the intensity in how the person is expressing it or the limitations in other abilities to aide the expression.
Certainly, there are various profiles and spectrums of sensory responses. Discerning these differences, finding what works best for each individual, or identifying useful tools can be quite challenging.
NOIRSTONE x FRIENDS
To make life bit simpler we tend to find tools or practices that help us move through life. One of these tools we’ve recently looked at was provided by our partner - Baloo Living.
[Nicole] - Baloo Living understands sensory needs and delivers tools to sooth our nervous systems to its natural balance state.
Their signature weighted blankets are made with 100% premium cotton and lead-free glass beads. The perfect size and weight definitely gives me the deep pressure stimulation that feels like a firm warm hug. Now I can get hugs and comfort even when my husband is away.
Other than weighted blankets, we can also find their thoughtful products to help our sensory needs, such as comforters, bed settings, and sleep masks that block light and muffle the surrounding sound.
Sleep is the foundation of wellbeing and, home is where every foundation starts. Baloo Living donates a portion of profits to Pajama Program and provides new pajamas as well as bedtime books to children in foster care and homeless shelters.
Click the link in the description (Or picture on this article) to discover how Baloo Living can bring comfort for you, your family, and children in need.
[Elliott] - Any suggestions on where we can start?
[Nicole] - Here are simple examples to work with. Anxiety can manifest as excessive fear or worry and may be linked to sensory overload or worry about the events that haven’t happened yet. Essentially, worrying about the future. Other feelings can be loneliness, sadness, over fiery or over joyful.
Autistic and neurodivergents may become anxious in crowded spaces or, the complete opposite, such as a very open and quiet space.
Other situations may include facing projects of passion or having an opposite view than other people on the team.
Some of it may even come with PTSD as a pairing, so the memory of the past comes in, triggering worry toward the future. In our culture, small children would get very jumpy or feel unsafe during bedtime, so traditionally, parents or grandparents would prepare a small rice bag, placing it on the child’s chest and abdominal area. In the current day and age, we can use other tools to help.
Pressure and Texture
Using weighted blankets or deep pressure touch therapy can create a sense of security and calmness. Our weighted blanket is about 15 lbs, which is about 6 - 7 kg. It’s made with durable cotton so it provides a very soft, non itching feeling.
Weighted blanket aren’t only meant to be used in bed. It is just as useful on the couch. The smaller size can also be used on commutes, in the office, and school so it helps us to feel more grounded.
Hugs (consensual) are a very useful alternative to weighted blankets, only if the person is ok to have skin contact It works just like weighted blankets, providing pressure and warmth, but also comes with the addition of the human pulses and love.
When blankets and hugs aren’t an option, some prefer compression clothing. I used to wear skin tight clothing by itself or underneath sweaters. This helps compressing my body to give me that needed sense of security on my terms.
Not everyone likes compression and weights on or around them. Some people prefer decompressing and freedom. They would experience poor sleep or feelings similar to claustrophobia (fear of small/confined spaces).
No one solution completely fits any situation. Commonly, you experience a mix of needs as well as solutions to address them. It’s very commonto see kids (or myself) that when we have to bundle up in winter, we can feel extremely uncomfortable when the jacket is zipped up to the chin.
This is a good example of when we are ok to wear tight and warm clothing on the body, but not so much on or around the neck.
This is a continuum of our first example, plus it adds on the sensation of certain fabrics or object textures that may be irritating to the person, or have the opposite effect in which one will obsess over sensations the texture brings.
It’s important to comprehend the texture, the feelings it brings, and why the person is attracted to that specific texture.Sometimes it can be something soothing physically. It can also come from curiosity. The discovery of a new texture, leading to obsession of understanding. Some can also come from being predictable, so we don’t have to stress about if a new texture does or doesn’t work with us. Other than fabrics, the same rules apply on skincare, fidget tools, and everyday interactions with the environment.
Flashing lights may cause discomfort or even pain. In some cases, purplish-blue colors can also make a person feel physical discomfort. There are even some that experience anxiety and discomfort when there are types of motion or movement happening within their periphery. For accommodation, soft, ambient lighting, tinted or transitional glasses, even something as simple as sunglasses can help.
A loud noise, like a siren, may be overwhelming, to the point of inaction. The opposite is also true, where it can be too quiet, causing the person to be overwhelmed by internal noise. Noise-canceling headphones, earbuds, or even soundproof rooms can create a more comfortable environment for those subject to too much environmental noise. While some require white noise or background sounds, like traffic, to feel comfortable and functional.
I remembered when I first lived in the suburbs in Australia. I had to turn on something with sound to help me sleep, because coming from busy Hong Kong to the quiet suburbs of Australia was a massive change in noise. It made me very anxious.
Certain food textures may be intolerable, unpredictable or unexpected. Just as scent, taste is a powerful sense. It can be overwhelming due to complexity (think “super tasters”) or it can also trigger previous trauma. Some people can be bothered by not just taste, but also certain texture, moisture, sound, or memory.
A lot of times our children or even autistic adults might not be able to give feedback verbally due to limitations on how to express the feelings. Even when verbal communication doesn’t seem like an issue on the surface, finding the right vocabulary to describe the feeling can be a challenge. This can be even further complicated when we aren’t speaking our mother or natural tongue.
So when the child knows they’d feel unwell after eating certain food, but they don’t have enough vocabulary or ability to communicate the feelings, the most direct response is to avoid eating it. And… depending on the situation, this can devolve into a fit or other negative responses.
When they stick with one type of food, one of the many reasons is because it’s predictable and “safe”. This is when we need to learn to observe the little clues and attempt to find out the “why”.
The other thing is sucking and chewing are also ways that humans find comfort through sensation in oral cavity.
Spatial and Physical Coordination
Difficulties with physical coordination or understanding spatial relationships. Unable to hold things or perform certain movements. Bumping into objects, even when they know there’s the same wall or object in front of them every time.
Seeking help from occupational therapists, montessori teachers who have experience with kids on spectrum, and psycho therapists, are important help them understand it’s not their fault.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, feeling a sense of failure, trapped, and sense of worthlessness can affect our muscles, tendons, and overall flow in the body.
Interestingly, some autistic individuals actually have been using stimming choices that are close to what TCM and Qi Gong would practice. When we see an individual wobbling, rocking on their feet, front to back or side to side, it’s actually helping them feel calm.
In TCM and Qi Gong practice, we have a point on the bottom on the feet which help to send or release the junk energy out of the body. All this while circulating calming electrical signals back up through the body to the brain, traveling through our spine, meridians, and collaterals.
For individuals on wheelchairs, or younger kids, wobble boards are an option for helping to get the calming sensations through spatial self-soothing.
Notes For Parents, Educators, Practitioners
It’s also important to understand that nothing is more effective than making connections. Taking time to understand what ours kids or those individuals are really going through and their needs.
As parents and educators, setting 1 on 1 time with our kids and even with ourselves is very important. Making connections, being patient, learning the ability to listen (not just hear), and to connect are skills. It takes time and patience along with practice.
And as life changes, we continuously must change. We have to adapt as what we or our loved ones are going through today, may not and likely will not be the same tomorrow.
Taking the time to understand that the only constant in life is change. We live through it and make everyday as a learning opportunity. This is so we don’t get overwhelmed by anxiety of being a failure, setting off our other senses.
As practitioners, phycisians, and clinicians, or even advocates, especially now with the ability to engage clients from across the globe so easily… We need to learn to properly understand where they come from and where they are at in life.
A lot of times we see the abundance of solutions online, that might not neccesarily apply in other parts of the world because of cultural differences, accessibility, availability, affordability, and attainability.
The ultimate goal of this video is to remind us all to revisit the blindspots in our lives. We must recognize that we need to pay attention not only to our physical senses, but also to our emotional and spiritual senses. They work together simultaneously. This applies to both adults and children.
The first step is to establish a connection with ourselves and our children before finding a solution. Connection is the fundamental key to building a foundation for wellbeing.