Understanding Your 3 Hidden Senses
You know your 5 senses. Chances are you even recited them back in elementary school. Sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. You’ve known your senses for years – but do you actually know all of them? While the main 5 senses have gotten all the attention, there are actually a total of 8 senses. So, what are these hidden 3?!
Introducing the 3 senses you’ve probably never heard of – proprioceptive, vestibular, and interoception. These 3 senses play a big role in our everyday life and help us do everything from recognizing hunger cues to balancing when we walk. But what happens if you struggle with one or more of these senses?
When you struggle with any of these senses, it can go beyond just sensitivity. It can greatly impair our day-to-day life. Think of it this way – when you have sensory sensitivity, you might get uncomfortable when the lights are too bright, or someone’s perfume is too strong but you can still go on with your day. But when someone has sensory processing disorder, those little moments can become huge roadblocks. They don’t just get uncomfortable, they get nauseous, panicked, and unable to focus on anything else. It can be debilitating. When you struggle with your proprioceptive, vestibular, or interoception systems, it’s more than a little hiccup in your day – it can severely impact your life.
Many Complex Learners have issues with one or more of these 3 senses and many parents might not even be aware or fully understand these struggles. Educating yourself can be a key first step in helping to understand your child’s needs and learning the tools and strategies that could help! We spoke with Wolf’s Director of Clinical Programs and trained Occupational Therapist, Kelly McDonald, for a breakdown of what these 3 senses are, what struggles with these senses could look like, and what you can do to help set your child up for success!
Proprioceptive is our body awareness. Our receptors are the information we get from our muscles and joints that help us to know where our body is in space. It’s because of this sense that we don’t walk into tables or fall out of our seats!
When a child struggles with this sense, it can look like they’re just clumsy. Maybe they’re always knocking into things or bumping into the child in front of them in line. Or maybe they’re constantly invading your space, accidentally stepping on your shoes as they walk behind you, or sitting down too close to you on the couch. These children can also have gravitational insecurity which means they get anxious or scared when their feet aren’t on the ground. This is because they struggle with understanding where their body is in relation to the world around them and when their feet aren’t on the ground it can feel terrifying.
When a child struggles with their proprioceptive system, proprioceptive input can help! Proprioceptive input can help calm our bodies and help us feel grounded. Strategies like heavy work and deep touch pressure help to ground us and connect us with gravity, making us aware of our body and where we are in space. Consulting with an Occupational Therapist can help you come up with specific strategies to help your child like doing 15 minutes of heavy work before soccer practice each night or creating a plan to slowly build up to getting their feet off the ground.
Simply put, our vestibular sense tells us when our body is in motion. It is our sense of movement and balance. The receptors for our vestibular system are in the inner ear and detect changes of head position. The vestibular system is closely connected to our other sensory systems and also helps us effectively use our eyes and process sound.
Like struggles with proprioceptive, a child can have an oversensitive or under sensitive vestibular system. An over sensitive child can feel disoriented and out of place with any change of head position – regardless of how slight a change it may appear to you. This can result in them trying to avoid doing things like swinging at recess or bending over while stretching. An under sensitive child on the other hand might not be able to recognize their limits because they require a greater intensity of sensory input for their body to register.
There are many simple activities you can encourage at home in order to help your child develop and adapt this sensory system. Basic things such as swinging, encourage upside down play, jumping and providing sensory tools that allow for movement while supporting attention, such as a wiggle cushion or stool. Working with an Occupational Therapist can help you and your child learn what they can do in everyday life that can help ease these struggles.
Interoception is our sense that tells us what our body is feeling. Our interoception sense makes us aware of our internal needs. Are we hungry? Thirsty? Tired? The receptors for this sense are inside your body’s organs and skin.
With our interoception sense, our body is telling us what we need. When a child can’t understand what their body is saying, it can lead to confusion, anger, and even fear. If they don’t know the difference between a stomach ache and hunger, they can’t let you know when they’re really feeling sick. If they can’t recognize what’s causing their pounding heart rate – they can feel terrified and confused. Our interoception sense is also strongly connected to emotional regulation and our mood. When a child doesn’t understand their body is telling them that they’re hungry and they continue to not eat – chances are you’ll have a “hangry” child on your hands!
To help a child who struggles with their interoception sense, it’s important to work on becoming more aware and in tune with their own body. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can help them become more in tune with themselves and how they’re feeling. Help your child understand the messages their body is telling them by teaching them what different cues mean. “When our stomach growls and then we feel pain in our stomach, chances are we need a snack!” “After exercise, let’s feel our heartbeat. Do you feel how fast it’s pounding? That’s just because we’ve been working hard!” By learning what their bodies are saying, we’re helping our children to listen and respond to what they need and learn to advocate for themselves. They can tell you when they need to stop and use the bathroom or when they have unexplained stomach pain. Once they understand the messages their bodies are telling them, they can easily convey them to you too!
Seeing your child struggle with their proprioceptive, vestibular, or interoception senses can feel overwhelming – but you can help! Learning what tools and strategies can help your child be successful is key when working through struggles with any of these 3 hidden senses. Consulting an Occupational Therapist can be a fantastic first step in identifying and coming up with a plan to address these issues.
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