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Wired to Connect – why sensory input needs to co-occur with social connection.

Feb 10, 2022 | Children, Emotions

There are three distinct parts of the brain that are responsible for arousal. These being the reticular activating system, thalamus, and the amygdala. 

 The reticular activating system acts as a gate keeper for sensation. At this level, the sensation is categorised as either threatening, novel, intense or familiar (something I have experienced previously). 

 The thalamus is the gateway to integration. It is here sensations meet and come together into our conscious awareness. By entering our conscious awareness, the individual can process the sensation in a connected, holistic way. Whereby they can connect body, thoughts and emotions to an event. 

 1/3 of the amygdala is oriented to faces and non-verbal cues. It combines both the social and sensory aspects of a situation to tag the stimulus as either threatening or safe. Therefore, the emotional, non-verbal mirror we communicate to our children, clients and partners will support their nervous system to engrain a memory of either safety or threat.  

For individuals who are neurodiverse, this processing occurs in a less systematic and rational manner. What may be perceived as benign and non-threatening to others may infact cause an increase in arousal – telling the individuals nervous system it needs to be on high alert and vigilant. Without accurate processing and integration across these brain structures the individual will have isolated, non-contextualised sensory experiences that do not have meaning. This sets up the nervous system to therefore respond as if all sensation is new, unfamiliar and potentially threatening. 

Some helpful tips:

• Sensation should always be provided in the context of social connection.

• During situations of threat or danger, your child will look to you for a cue of safety, to help regulate and calm their nervous system.

• Our brains are wired to connect at a primitive neurological level. Therefore, as adults, therapists, and teachers, we must be aware of our own arousal and consciously take action to shift into a place of safety.

Author: Kimberley Elter – Occupational Therapist