Sensory processing is – simply – someone’s ability to:
- Take in;
- Organise and
- Respond to sensory information from their immediate environment.
People with sensory processing issues can find it difficult to make sense of the world around them. And this can lead to being labelled “clumsy”, “disruptive” or “out of control”. It can make it difficult to make friends or be part of a group.
So, what is behind this – and how can we help people with sensory processing issues meet the challenges of the world as they experience it.
How does the sensory system work?
The brain and central nervous system receive input through our five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. In addition, they also receive information from pressure (exerted by or on the person) and movement.
Once the brain has interpreted this information, the central nervous system then sends messages to the body that affect determine that person’s response to the sensory stimuli. These govern functions such as memory, learning, muscle movement, gross motor co-ordination and behaviour.
In a nutshell, this process of sensory integration governs how your body responds to external stimuli. This includes the awareness of how your body is positioned in space and how your body is positioned relative to its own parts (or proprioceptive input).
People with Sensory Processing Disorder typically feel sensory input either more (hypersensitivity) or less intensely (hyposensitivity) than other people.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological condition that means the brain and body do not organise appropriate responses to sensory stimuli.
It feels like a main traffic intersection, where none of the traffic lights are working and no motorists are taking turns. You have lots of different – and often conflicting – stimuli coming at you. And you can’t make sense of any of it.
And this sense of panic and overwhelm can hurt someone’s ability to perform daily activities and respond appropriately to the people around them.
According to SPD Australia, Sensory Processing Disorder affects around 5% of the population.
This article in the Irish Journal of Occupational Therapy summarised that clinical studies have found that healthy adults with sensory sensitivity and sensory avoiding processing have “greater anxiety, neuroticism, negative affect, as well as elevated pain catastrophising and more sleep problems”.
How does Sensory Processing Disorder impact sleep?
And it found that the sleep problems were largely due to sensory processing issues – such as finding pyjamas or sheets uncomfortable. Or not being able to relax because the sleeper couldn’t identify where there body was positioned in space.
One other clinical study looked at the relationship between sleep and sensory processing sensitivities.
It found that there was an interesting feedback loop: that the quality of your sleep also affects your sensory processing.
And, so, there seems to be something of a vicious cycle.
People with SPD may find it difficult to sleep. And their SPD is worse than it might be, because they don’t get good quality sleep.
How can a weighted blanket help?
A clinical study, “Positive Effects of a Weighted Blanket on Insomnia” published in The Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders found that weighted blankets can help you sleep.
To quote, it said that weighted blankets may provide an “innovative, non-pharmacological approach and complementary tool to improve sleep quality”.
It also found no “adverse impacts” from using the weighted blankets.
The study’s authors conclude: “…a weighted blanket may aid in reducing insomnia through increased tactile and proprioceptive inputs”.
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