Sensory Incompatibility


When you have an itch, you scratch it, at least you try.  When it is in the middle of your back, away from your reach no matter how you twist and turn that is annoying in the lest.  Try ignoring it, can you?  I’m sure you’ve tried to ignore it, but parts of your brain are trying to figure out how to scratch the itch.  Maybe the corner of the wall, a friend or a stick or ruler will reach it and your suffering will be over.  The more you try to ignore it the more you feel you must scratch the itch, and the more you must scratch it the more intense the scratch will be when you finally get to the right spot.  The sense of touch, our tactile sense is part of our largest organ, ourskin.

Of the seven senses, five are well known.
Gustatory- taste

The two lesser known are;
Proprioception-where you are in space

Any one of these, but usually a combination, can find the environment incompatible.  Both internal and external factors need harmony for the day to go smoothly.  We all know a mild headache can change your perception of what is tolerable by even the slightest.  The lights are brighter, noises are louder, smells more nauseating and even the position of our body can worsen or improve our mood.  Most headaches are cured by lying down in cool dark quiet environment.  Headaches are not productive.

Sensory Incompatibility is like that, a headache that disrupts your day.  A child sitting in a classroom is where this incompatibility can be at its worst for kids with SPD.  The number of factors that change minute to minute and the demands of dealing with these fluctuations can be overwhelming.  The added issue for these kids over the other students is a neuro-physiological difference.  Thanks to studies like the one being done at CSU’s Brainwave Lab by Drs. Davies and Gavin; they have seen evidence that childrens’ brains are processing information differently, mostly due to SPD.

The brain uses a lot of organization, mapping, communication and prioritizing to process information.  We have developed computers that mimic our human brains, even down to the ‘bugs’.  These ‘bugs’ are defects in the information processing that are detected in the output or response to the internal misinformation.  Huge amounts of data are needed for simple processes; one misrepresentation of information can cause a domino of effects in the outcome of a program.  How frustrating when a simple program won’t run!

This is what is happening for child with SPD, not to mention kids with Autism, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, Down’s syndrome, CP, Learning disabilities and a whole list of other diagnoses (and some not diagnosed, but labeled behavior problem).  It is not a small handful of children, but a vast majority of children deal with some sensory incompatibility every day in every classroom in every country.

Some of these children have a little better hearing, or a little better vision or a little better smell, or taste all the spices in the food, they can seem to be very intuitive.  It may not actually be ‘better’ just that their brain gives sensory input higher priority than it needs to have.

Proprioception-Knowing where we are in space:

And some kids have less, they react slower to pain stimuli, you want them to hug less tight, run less and wiggle less, but in fact they need more.  These are kids whose proprioception sense needs to know it is still part of the game, not to be forgotten at circle time, and can be the deciding factor when danger presents itself, think extreme sports!  Their sensory systems get bored easily and crave stimulation, this is a Sensory Seeker and you’d know one if you met one, though they may only stay still when sleeping.

Proprioception is a common word for Physical Therapist and Occupational Therapists.  When you injure a knee, for example, at PT will focus your therapy on proprioception.  While you have been told you are strengthening your knee and supporting muscles, your PT knows you must also strengthen the communication of your internal knee nerves and those that keep you balanced.  The really cool thing about these nerves is that they don’t need a command center; they don’t need to communicate everything to the brain.  They are somewhat self contained, a feedback system that is constantly tweaking to keep a joint functioning and supporting its task, like walking.  If your proprioception is working well, you can usually raise your hands above your head and touch each index finger to each other, without looking.  You may be off by a few centimeters, but you are close.  Your brain gave the task to your muscles and with fine precision, the muscles and joints executed the task and you were amazed.

Children with proprioception processing disorders are the kids who could not pass a road side sobriety test.  Their nerve communication is misjudging information, over or under correcting, firing to quick or too slow.  This can make handwriting an arduous tasks, frustration for the child attempting it, and frustration for anyone trying to read it.  Sports that require a lot of eye-hand coordination will be a challenge.  Judging where the table meets the class when setting your drink down, clumsy is not the right word; sensory incompatibility is the true meaning.  Their brain is giving signals for action, the execution is off.

Even though there is little feedback from these nerves to the brain, what information that is given tends to needs more feedback.  While most people are satisfied with a gentle hug, these kids need a tight squeeze compressing joints and muscles.  The high fives will be painful to their buddies and they offer come close to injuring themselves to ‘feel alive’.  Some children contort themselves or pick odd positions while doing seated work or even watching TV.  Their choice of clothing could be turtle necks, tight fitting clothes my may have outgrown, or shoes laced tight on their feet.  They will do anything to meet their needs, to scratch those internal itches.

Tactile- touch:

Back to that itch, did you get it scratched?  Did it create another itch in the time you were ignoring it?  How distracted were you until you satisfied that itch?  Some people have that all day with clothes or shoes or temperature.  We tend to think naked children are limited to the 2 year olds, but when clothes are a sensory incompatibility, it is hard to be social when being dressed is a requirement.  The clothing industry has made some accommodations.  The tag-less shirts and the comfy underwear waistband are just a start.  There is even a whole line of clothes dedicated for tactile defensive (those who find clothes ‘itchy’) kids.

It is hard to be comfortable in your own skin, let alone clothes when your skin nerves are constantly interrupting the conversations going on in your brain.  These children tend to worry; they worry about the present andthe future, change in situation, change in seasons and change in those around them.  They avoid being bumped or rubbed and give a person the appearance of shy or introverted.  Next time you see a parent pleading with their child at the store to try on clothes or shoes, consider that this child’s nerves can’t take this simple activity and back to school shopping is going to be a nightmare.

A child with tactile defensiveness is an avoider, sometimes an avoider of life.  In the more extreme cases, these kids can feel every fiber of clothing scratching them; it gives the feeling of steel wool on their skin, even underwear in the most sensitive spots.  They fight to stay naked, fear baths for the feeling for the feeling the water on their skin gives them makes their skin crawl.  Don’t even think about that rough towel drying them off.

When a parent is unaware of sensory incompatibility, they can fight their children over what they think are the silliest of issues.  Shoes must fit just right, particular types of socks, the feel of a favorite blanket or even being hugged can all create frustration.  Just because socks ‘should’ be worn with shoes does not mean then can be.

Nerves in the skin send messages about texture, temperature and pressure to the brain.  When the processing of this information is prioritized wrong, a small section of that information will become the itch that needs scratching.  The shoes will need fixing until the information is no longer a priority, the line in the sock foot will need to be placed over the right nerves as to not draw attention to it by the brain.

For these kids, these sensory incompatibilities are real and trump all other issues, weather real or perceived.  Anxiety can come from tactile defensiveness, trying to avoid situations and constantly worrying about situations.  A child does not know that not everyone feels the same as they do, they do not know that others are not intensely bothered by fabric, pressure and temperature, they cannot express that this is how they feel, they just worry, avoid and say no.

Gustatory and Olfactory – taste and smell:

No is also the most common answer a child says who has sensory incompatibility to new foods.  Taste, the gustatory sense, and smell, the olfactory sense, overlap in function. Smell not only enhances taste, it is the first step to digestion.  When smelling food our brain anticipates eating and turns on the digestive juices in our stomach to prepare for what we will eat.  Smell can also create the opposite effect.

Most of us have particular foods we just don’t want to eat, the spice is too hot or the texture makes us avoid these foods.  Even smelling these foods can alert our gag reflex to be on the lookout.  Some people are so sensitive that seeing the food or even hearing about that food can turn them off.

There are many myths about pregnancy cravings; I don’t personally know anyone who craved pickles and ice-cream while pregnant.  Other cravings I have heard of, or wanting more of something during pregnancy.  During pregnancy more blood flow through the body and particularly in the mouth and nose heightens these senses.  It is a survival instinct, heightened sense of smell we can find the nutrients we are missing.  I for one am so glad that Pepperidge Farms’ Milano Cookies lists Folic Acid on their ingredient list, I used that excuse a lot.

Craving,and even eating, odd things while pregnant is known as Pica.   Avoiding foods based on smell and taste can be sensory incompatibility.  A heightened ability to detected parts of a smell, the spices or vegetables, can be overwhelming to some.  Not only do foods smell, cigarettes, rubber product like tires (and now playgrounds) plants and people have their own distinct smells.  They might be the first to detect a fire!

Smells also help with memory; they help us bookmark events in our lives.  When a child is processing smells more than the average nose it can be a source of distraction, food avoidance and sometimes nausea.  Smell can elicit memories, maybe the last time the food that smell came from was eaten, it tasted really badly to that person.  So instead of positively anticipating a good meal, a child could become anxious about an impending stomach ache.

Taste and eating is combined with the tactile sense, how items in your mouth feel.  We also take in temperature and pressure, as in how hard to chew or swallow.  We know the difference between ice-cream and steak without seeing it.   For sensory incompatibility, it could just be texture; cold and smooth might turn on the gag reflex and then a mess.

Proprioception is also involved in eating, the chewing part.  We don’t consciously think about how hard to chew, but we do it anyway.  A good sign that a child is having sensory incompatibility is wet chewed up clothes.  Look at the pencils of a child trying to organize their sensory processing, or erasers, all are a good clue.  A child that is in sensory incompatibility crisis could try to fix the problem with chewing, an entire sleeve might end up being the victim, wet, wrinkled and stretched out.

While it may seem worth the battle to fight over dinner, think twice about how your child sees it, how the smell and the food make him physically feel.

Vestibular-another sense of where we are in space:

Most of what we do is based on how we feel, emotions and the overall feeling of our bodies.  Nausea can also come easy to some people by way of motion.  The vestibular sense in our ears that communicates to our brains tells us movement of our body, up or down, left or right.

Our ears are a 2 for one mechanical device.  Inside the cochlea is water like substance.  When we move our head the water moves and the tiny hairs in the cochlea also move and transmit the direction and force to our brains.  The hairs on our arms can tell us when we are brushing up against something, or the direction of the wind.  The hairs on our heads also are good for information, we are usually can feel if they are being pulled even a little or styled in a way that is comfortable.  The hairs in our cochlea are much more sensitive to movement.

For SPD kids, movement is the center of their worlds.  We have kids who move all the time, and others who hardly get off course.  There are times that the brain is looking for more external information.  It is continually processing incoming information, and the vestibular system needs lots of checking in as well.  During times of sensory incompatibility, this sense is needed more and the communication becomes a top priority.

Those kids who like to, rather need to, move are checking in with their vestibular system all the time.  Just turning their head is a whisper from their vestibular system.  The brain can hardly pinpoint the head’s placement with such mild movements and requests more.  Running, jumping, sliding and spinning are needed, even in the classroom.  These movements can be a danger, so they find other ways, leaning back in chairs or sitting sideways, rocking back and forth, basically any large body movement gives the messages in stronger force and higher frequency and incorporates vestibular sense’s best friends- proprioception, vision and hearing.

Have you ever been in a car and thought your car was moving forward when in fact the car next to you was backing up, this can create dizziness without actual movement of your body, sensory incompatibility.  The eyes give us our horizon, the floor and ceiling to tell us where we are in relation to our surrounding.  Our hearing takes in sound from around our heads for location of objects and people, even danger.  Proprioception tells us how hard to move against gravity, what the floor is like and if we are sitting, standing or walking (or running, jumping, sliding . . .) and spinning!  Our vestibular system tells our body what position it is.

Moving kids are just researching space, getting to know their place in history of the moment.  Not knowing this is sensory incompatibility.

Most people have a preference for direction of spinning (if you can tolerate spinning).  The opposite direction tends to make us dizzier more quickly.  Our brains can ignore the spinning in one direction more than the other.  Children with SPD tend to spin in one direction and will dislike the opposite direction.  This is true of other ways of vestibular input.  They might prefer swinging, or running, or sliding.  Some kids even like them all; this is what they crave, what their body is asking of them and what the need!

Though some don’t need.  They don’t need movement, they rather avoid movement, their sensory incompatibility is movement.  Their brain is processing vestibular information too much, giving it too high a priority.  They avoid running and spinning and sliding and hate riding in the car.  They will not be standing in line for the rollercoaster or be excited about climbing a tower.  These children like to stay on solid ground, even a small amount of height might be unsettling.  Their visual perception and vestibular information is too much, their proprioception is unstable and leads to fear of falling.

This is very real to them, they have an unrealistic perception of where they are, but it is real to them.  A simple walk on a low beam might be too much, even following a line on the ground is nearly an impossible task because all the necessary information from the sensory teams are being processed incorrectly, incompatibility.  They can be easily frustrated to try these types of activities, even anxious for physical education or extra circular activities.  They are just getting the wrong information and a heightened sense of movement is uncomfortable to function with.

Visual, seeing the world around us.

Those of us with vision rely on it heavily.  We use it to communicate, to take in our surrounding, help our visual mapping in our rains, know what time of day it is by reading the light and to take in beauty.  When this sense is distorted, so is the information that comes into the brain from it.

Our eyes are the most used resource for learning.  We learn first by watching our parents, seeing their expressions and trying to track their movements.  It is easier to detect and treat a malfunction in the mechanical portion of vision, sight.  Glasses help make the light and color entering our eyes sharp and focused.  Vision is also processing that information, the colors, brightness and depth of what we see all needs to be interpreted to become useful information.

Two eyes are better than one unless they are not working in conjunction with each other.  A simple test at school determines a child’s visual acuity, the processing, communication and cohesive double senses is often overlooked.  Our mind’s eye development begins at birth and we accept that what we see is what we get, until it starts to fail.  When I child is processing visual information incorrectly, it is hard for them to know this is a problem; it is how they have always seen.  Learning large black on white block letters might be fine, once a child must now decipher these letters in smaller print closer to their face and make words of them, this is where the troubles play out.  Picture books help a child mask their issues by guessing at the words, and getting them right part of the time.

Reading needs sight and language processing and visual mapping.  It is hard to remember all the rules of the English language each time you see a word for the first time.  Acuity is first, convergence, the eyes meeting at the same point, is next and processing is after that.  When the eyes are not converging, reading and learning become sensory incompatibility issue for the child.  A child might see double letters, out of focus or the letter could move and the child can easily lose their place when reading or concentrating on information.  Tracking a teacher, trying to gain information posted on walls and chalkboards will be difficult and lead to decreased learning potential.

The first several years of school are devoted to learning to read and the use of language.  A child who not only has a hard time reading will have a hard time writing, spelling, doing math, science projects and anything that challenges their visual sense.

These children might compensate with their visual mapping skills, they have taken in information with the other senses, by hearing the information and thus processed this way.  To read we must recognize the letters and words and the sounds that go with it.  Visual mapping is the anticipation of the word order, sentence structure and flow of a story.  When reading is a sensory incompatibility, children had a hard time building their language abilities.

About the 3rd grade reading turns to a main resource of learning.  Children are expected to research information, convey what they are learning and anticipate through written information like a schedule change that is written on a chalkboard.

When copying from a chalkboard a child must remember small amounts of information to transcribe it to their own paper.  This can be a visual processing problem, not only a visual acuity problem.  First seeing the word in order, committing the order to memory, anticipating where their hands are in relation to the paper, focusing on the paper that is now near to them, repeating the order of the letters and forming the letter in the same order.  Each of these steps could be a problem and all parts of the process that come after are affected.

Reading is not the only thing that can be sensory incompatible with children with SPD.  The eyes work with the vestibular system to allow purposeful movement.  A child can have eye hand coordination problems, over or under shoot for placing an object somewhere and also misjudge other movements around them.  They may misjudge distance and have a hard time with heights or activities that require correct body placements.  They can incorrectly interpret where others are in relation to themselves.

All in all, visual acuity is only half way towards good vision, the convergence and processing can hinder and even halt learning.  They might actually be missing the big picture.



read, Hearing Doesn’t Mean He Heard It . . . .


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