The other day, I received a referral from a pediatrician about a child that was experiencing a fear of loud noises and distress being in crowds among other difficulties. As I read what the doctor had written, I tried to get a mental image of what this child might be experiencing. As a clinician, my mind ran through a variety of frames of reference that I’ve been trained in, assessing where I might start putting together a plan to help.
One of the terms that might be brought up in this instance is ‘sensory’. Allow me to present my explanation of ‘sensory’. As a musician, I like to think of all of our senses being like a sliding fader control on a sound mixing board. Like music, if I push the fader up on a mixing board, my ears perceive ‘more’ of whatever that fader is controlling, i.e. more guitar, more bass, more drums, etc. When I think of our sensory systems, if that fader is up high, the brain receives an intense signal. And, like music, sometimes one of the instruments is so loud, it’s hard to hear the others.
The tricky thing about this is that everybody’s ‘mixing board’ is wired differently. As a child, my brain received a very ‘loud’ signal from my balance system. Movement was very intense, and as a result, I experienced motion sickness. Conversely, my sense of smell is on a lower fader and I hardly notice smells that other people pick up on. We all attend to different sensory input with a custom ‘mix’.
The next term I’d like to present is ‘modulation‘. I like to explain modulation is our ability to handle all of the sensory information our brains are receiving at any given time. It is foundational to our ability to self-regulate and present ourselves in a composed manner to the outside world. I feel like difficulty modulating is felt somewhere in the chest/gut and is closely tied with feelings of anxiousness. As such, sensory processing differences can lead to day-to-day coping difficulties and negative behaviors.
So back to the title, if this child was particularly sensitive to auditory information, they may feel stressed or anxious in loud situations. Or, if this higher sensitivity is true for visual and tactile sensations, being in crowds with lots of visual and tactile sensations may lead them to feeling overwhelmed, read: they cannot modulate all of this information at once and are unable to self regulate. There are a number of strategies your occupational therapist can suggest when working with a child with sensory processing differences and self-regulation. It is fundamentally important as a cornerstone for the next level of skills involving our sensory systems: discrimination.