Sensory modulation is the body and brain’s filtering system. Sensation is funneled to the brain for processing. This “funneling” is not always effective whereby there is too much, or too little sensation allowed in.
Effective sensory modulation is a pre-requisite for the maintenance of a sufficient level of attention and arousal.
Effective sensory modulation allows an individual to respond to relevant stimuli and block out irrelevant stimuli in their environment.
Sensory modulation is closely linked to the autonomic nervous system and influences an individual’s stress response and ability to cope.
There are several sensory modulation disorders. An individual may have one or multiple areas of difficulty.
• Tactile defensiveness – touch sensation generates negative emotional reactions and is perceived as uncomfortable, unpredictable, or threatening. Individuals with tactile defensiveness often will be described as distractible, restless, and reactive.
• Gravitational Insecurity – an exaggerated fearful or avoidant response to movement or change in head position. This is directly related to processing of vestibular and proprioception information. Individuals with gravitational insecurity will often dislike having their feet off the ground, being in the car or moving out of a vertical position.
• Auditory Modulation difficulties – an increased sensitivity to certain sounds or frequencies whereby the individual notices sounds that others don’t, perceives sound more intensely than others and will then often become overloaded. Typical indicators of auditory modulation difficulties include; startling easily, disliking sudden/unexpected sounds, being distracted in busy environments, covering their ears and noticing sounds others may not.
• Under responsivity to vestibular and proprioceptive inputs – often these individuals will seek out additional movement and sensation. Under-responsive children may be inclined to run, crash and spin where as under-responsive adults may be very busy active people, finding it difficult to sit still or engage in a “desk job” without getting restless or fidgeting.
Difficulties with sensory modulation can have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to not only cope in the world but also enjoy some of the basic everyday activities their friends and family do. Without support, individuals with sensory modulation issues will often begin to avoid situations and activities that are too overwhelming or develop significant behaviours of concern.
Speak to your Occupational Therapist about completing a number of standardised questionnaires to ascertain what sensory systems may be affected.
For individuals with tactile defensiveness, consider what clothing and bathing products may be less aversive. For school aged children, consider how they are positioned during transitions at school.
For individuals with under-responsivity, find ways to incorporate more movement and sensation throughout the day. Outdoor activities, increasing sensation during morning routines and regular breaks may be beneficial.
Author: Kimberly Elter – Occupational Therapist