“Pull Yourself Together”: Trauma and Sensory Integration Issues
Our bodies have 5 senses and 7 sensory data inputs:
7. Body Position
All of our senses organize information from inside and outside our body and communicate the “data” to the brain. This organization allows us to know where our body is in time and space, to feel safe in one’s own body, and to perceive our body’s relationship to others and the environment.
A child who has experienced trauma typically has a dysintegration of sensory information that will result in a dysregulation of thinking and emotion. They will not be aware of where their bodies are in time and space, cannot feel safe in their own body, and are unable to make connections to others and the environment.
Stressful sensory input is handled by the lower levels of the brain (brain stem and limbic system) and the body and overseen by the higher, executive level of the brain. If the stressful input is mild, normal coordination between all levels of the brain and the body coordinate smoothly. If the stress is high and overwhelming, the lower levels will “hijack” the higher levels to protect the body. This is called the “fight or flight” reaction to perceived danger. If these two mechanisms are not able to bring the body back into a place of safety, the brain will react by “freezing” or shutting down.
The fight, flight and freeze reactions are designed to allow the higher order areas of the brain to continue operating so that is appears that traumatized children are functioning in some areas of life but there will continue to be gross areas of dysfunction in development. This will manifest in “gaps” between a child’s age and stage of development. They may be 15 years of age chronologically but act like a 5 year old socially and emotionally. Parenting strategies will have to adjust to meet both the 5 year old and the 15 year to close the gap.
Sensory “confusion” will drive traumatized children to be sensory seekers and/or sensory defenders. Sensory seekers look a lot like children diagnosed with attentional deficits. They appear impulsive, can’t sit still, wiggle a lot, touch things, put things in their mouths, tear things apart, easily distracted, etc. These are attempts to get more information about themselves and the world around them. Sensory defenders are quickly overwhelmed by certain sensory information in one or more of the sensory systems: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, oral, and olfactory. They will complain about the brightness of lights, the hum of electric motors, dislike loud noises, be irritated by the feel of clothing on their skins, be picky eaters, sensitive to perfumes and candles, etc. Children can have combinations of both sensory seeking and sensory defending.
There are 4 treatment strategies to help traumatized children with sensory integration issues:
Awareness allows parents and children to be aware of their sensory triggers and needs. Adaption provides assistance to the child to get the sensory information they need or takes steps to avoid sensory overload. Exposure, in small increments over time, helps children build tolerance and increase functioning. Advocacy requests support from the child’s academic and social environment so that teachers and friends understand the issues and incorporate adaptations as well.