Sensory Processing Differences
Resource by Taylor Harrington & Clara King
Adapted with permission from authors
We are constantly taking in and processing a large amount of sensory information throughout the day. The sound of the radio, the taste and smell of our morning breakfast, the texture of our clothing, the fluorescent lights of our offices. We also process information from our vestibular system , responsible for providing us with information about our balance and head positions and our proprioceptive system movement, providing us with information about the movement and position of our body and joints.
Most of us are able to detect, process and respond to this information without a problem. Our brains are able to help us focus to important sensory information, and filter out less important information (for example, focusing in on a conversation you are having, or filtering out background noise, or the texture of a clothing tag).
Some people, including many individuals with autism, respond to the sensory information in their body and environment differently.
Some may notice certain stimuli more than others and easily become overwhelmed, or find it hard to focus in on one piece of sensory information at a time. Others may not notice certain types of sensory information as much as others, and miss sensory cues.
At ministries for people with intellectual disabilities (ID), this could look like a member becoming bothered by the shouting/chatter, the bright lights, the squeaking of the microphone during a meeting, or very physical or messy games. They may also find it hard to focus when a leader is giving a talk or instructions, or are touchy and find it difficult to stay out of other's personal space. This can cause significant frustration, distress and confusion for those with sensory processing differences.
Appropriate ways we can support those with sensory processing differences
As each person experiences difficulties with sensory processing differently, techniques to manage sensory responses with vary widely between individuals. It is worth talking to the individual and/or their family for what specific sensory difficulties the person has, and what techniques are effective in managing their sensory responses.
Use break out spaces
Break-out space is a place for an individual to go to when they become overwhelmed at any point. Ideally, this room should be relatively quiet, small, have a limited number of people and not too much decoration. A break-out space/room provides an area for an individual to calm down and 'reset' before re-joining the group.
Let the individual know that they are free to use this room whenever they feel they need to, and ensure the space is not used as a 'time-out' area, or a place to go for poor behaviour. The break-out room could contain objects/resources that the individual finds calming (such as sensory tools or a favourite book, or prompts for using breathing techniques such as 'square breathing'). It should be a place where the individual can be observed by a leader.
● A break-out room can be used not only for individuals experiencing sensory processing difficulties, but also others who may become overwhelmed or have difficulties regulating their emotions/managing their behaviour for other reasons - for example, if a member is struggling with losing a game, or is finding a certain activity particularly overwhelming and needs support coping and managing their response, using a breakout space may help.
● It is important to speak with the teenager's family to discuss at what point will parents/family members be called if an individual's responses to a situation become increasingly challenging to manage. It is important to remember that Jesus Club leaders are not expected to be experts in behaviour/disability support, and that the safety and care of the individual and those around them is prioritised by ensuring leaders are not put in situations outside of their skills and experience.
Provide regular breaks
Providing regular break times in talks and discussion groups, and/or having leniency if an individual needs to get up and move, or leave the group for a short period of time, also provides individuals with an opportunity to reset and remain focused during an activity. Incorporating movement into breaks (such as getting the members to stretch, jump, walk around or have a water/toilet break) are some ideas for including structured breaks in activities.
Ask for their preference
Individuals with sensory processing difficulties may have techniques already in use at home at school that they find effective, such as wearing headphones in noisy environments. Ask the person and their family what techniques work for them, and try implementing these ideas!
Taylor Harrington and Clara Kang created this resource as part of a community project facilitated by 4th year Bachelor of Applied Science (Occupational Therapy) students at the University of Sydney.