Sensory Processing, Theraplay® and the 8 Senses

Did you know that there are actually 8 senses, not just 5?

Of course you have probably heard of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch, but what about interoception, vestibular, and proprioception?

Interoception is the body's internal sense.

Interoception tells us when we are hungry or full, when we need to go to the bathroom, and when our internal organs experience pain or sensation. When our interoception is not well-functioning, as can happen with Autism or Sensory Processing Disorder, we might be hypersensitive to changes and sensations in our bodies, or our system might be under-responsive to what is happening inside. This can lead to a lot of toilet-training accidents and difficulty with bladder and bowel control.

The vestibular sense gives our body information about balance, movement, and gravity.

The vestibular system helps us stay upright as we walk, dance or try a fancy one-legged yoga pose. It tells us if we are upside down or right-side up. If the vestibular sense is not functioning well, we might have a lot of difficulty with balance, even while walking. This can lead kids to feel mildly fearful in everyday situations, like climbing a flight of stairs or being bumped into by another student in the lunch-line. When the vestibular sense is under-developed, kids experience a very real "fear of falling."

Proprioception helps us know where our limbs are in space. It helps us "motor plan." 

Proprioception is the input of the body's muscles and joints; it lets us know where our body parts are in relation to one another even without looking at them. Close your eyes and touch your hands together behind your back. Touch the top of your head. Put your hands on your hips. Proprioception is what makes it possible for us to do these movements blind, without much effort. Proprioception also helps us understand the grading or force of our movements; it helps us stroke a cat gently or hug someone with just the right amount of squeeze. It also helps us to motor plan. Have you ever heard the saying about things being "just like riding a bicycle"? Or noticed how after tying your shoes forever, it is just second nature- you don't even have to think about it? That is because our body's proprioceptive system creates a type of "muscle memory." It's the same with playing a musical instrument: While it may be difficult to write out all the individual notes you play in a song, when you sit down to play the song, your fingers "know" where to go.

When the proprioceptive system is not functioning well, everyday things can be really, really difficult. Basic self-care skills, like brushing your hair or tying your shoes, can become complex multi-step processes that involve a lot of thinking and effort and failed attempts. If your system is under-responsive to proprioceptive input, you might seek out more input through socially inappropriate things such as crashing into people or objects, jumping, rough-housing, falling into walls, or rolling on the floor. Your system is trying to compensate, because it can be a very anxiety-provoking experience to not know where your body is in space. Some of these forceful activities (also known as "heavy work") help kids feel calm, safe, and grounded. 

As infants and young children, we develop all our senses through experiential learning.

Our sense of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell are developed through many novel experiences as children. We know that it's important to expose young children to many new textures, colors, tastes, etc. and young children typically crave these new experiences, wanting to touch everything and put everything in their mouths! Just as they are "trying out their legs" they are trying out their senses. Young children are also eager to try out their interoceptive, vestibular and proprioceptive senses. Potty-training is a challenge as kids learn to feel and interpret cues from their own bodies and respond appropriately. Kids seek out experiences like gymnastics, hanging upside down on the monkey bars, swinging on a swing-set, and jumping on trampolines to build and strengthen the vestibular sense. Young children also try out their proprioceptive skills by attempting to learn motor planning and coordination tasks of increasing difficulty: crawling, walking, tying their shoes, dancing, or learning a musical instrument or sport. Sometimes, though, as kids try out their new senses, it's clear that things aren't developing so typically. 

Theraplay® and Occupational Therapy (OT) can help kids with sensory integration issues, Autism or Sensory Processing Disorder.

Occupational Therapy is specifically focused on sensory integration and the physical mechanics of the body. OT helps kids who may not have mental health or behavioral concerns, but aren't meeting developmental milestones or have problems with activities in their daily life. Theraplay is a model of play therapy designed for emotional, social or behavioral concerns, but it also incorporates many new sensory experiences for kids, within the safety of the parent-child relationship. Theraplay works on creating "felt safety" for a child who may feel insecure or fearful in her own body due to sensory integration problems. As the child feels increasingly safe and confident, new games and sensory experiences are added to gradually expand the child's felt sense of safety in the world. Theraplay therapists often work collaboratively with OTs to set goals that will address the specific needs of the individual child and family. It is not uncommon for kids to need both OT and Theraplay, because trouble with sensory integration often leads to social, behavioral, or emotional problems. 



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