I always thought we had five senses: seeing, hearing, taste, touch and smell. As I had to learn about autistic spectrum disorders to help my son Peter I learned about other senses: tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive. These three are key to how we all interpret our everyday experiences, as much as the senses we think about each day.
For those on the spectrum, these senses are often either immature or heightened. They rarely help the person interpret the world as most people do. Peter, for example, did not like to be held or hugged as a baby. His tactile sense made touch uncomfortable. He was clumsy and liked to spin because his vestibular sense made him interpret movement incorrectly. He was unaware of his body position in the world because his proprioceptive did not interpret information correctly from his joints, muscles and tendons. Peter went through a variety of therapies to enable him to cope with these senses and be able to connect to the world in a more natural way.
Brush therapy trained his tactile sense enough to be able to give a hug for the first time. He began sleeping through the night and did not seem so uncomfortable in his own skin. Occupational therapy, which included quite a bit of spinning in swings, helped reset his vestibular balance and begin to interpret the world around him more accurately. Physical and occupational therapy strengthened Peters muscles and joints and slowed down the number of times he crashed into objects and walked crooked down a long hallway.
Dr. Temple Grandin, now one of the voices for those on the autistic spectrum, explains sensory issues in her book The Way I See It.
Watch your child closely - the signs are there. Do you see him putting his hands over his ears to block out noise? Does he become agitated every time you are in a bustling, noisy, or chaotic environment, she writes. Are there certain textures of food he just won't tolerate? Do you find her pulling at or taking off clothes that have rough textures or tugging at necklines where tags are rubbing?
Understanding these senses that most of us take for granted can often help those on the spectrum cope with moments in everyday life that are truly painful or unbearable.
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