The princess and the pea

The princess and the pea

I grew up with a number of sensory quirks, which seemed to run in the extended family. These goings on were duly noted and mostly disregarded. I recognise similar traits in my little daughter. Quite the sensory circus over at our house sometimes.

These sensory traits meant that having my hair combed was screaming agony. It meant waiting outside the house when my brothers were eating stinky fish in the kitchen. It meant bearing the discomfort of scratchy seams of clothing that felt like it had a wooden sticks sewn into the sides. It meant gagging from smells and refusing to go into places because of it.

Some of you will understand. The people who have to smooth down the creases in the fitted sheet in order to sleep know what I’m talking about. The ones who wake up in the dead of night from clocks ticking or blinds rattling in the wind. I get how the princess could not sleep with a pea under the mattresses. Honestly. Who could sleep in those conditions?

Without the proper sensory filters too much input comes through. Or: The body and brain does not know how to tone down sensory input or integrate it properly. This has huge emotional impact. Imagine walking through a minefield of sensory input. Any step can create an explosion of overwhelming sensation. Emotional volatility is bound to ensue. Anxiety is a given. Irrational fears are not uncommon. Food of course, is a big issue. Smelly things? No way. Funny textures? Keep away.

Today these things are classified on the continuum of sensory processing. On the one end are the people who get freaked out by sensory input. Overstimulated and affected. Where everything is too much: Too loud, too smelly, too heavy a pressure, too bright. On the other end are the people craving sensory input. The sensory seekers who need more input than is the norm, to make sense of their environment. On this end of the continuum there are also the people who seem more oblivious to sensory input. Visual neglect and other sensory neglect sometimes go together (where one sense can be therapeutically used to wake up the others). These people are more shut off from their environment, and often become ‘locked in’ emotionally. In the middle of the continuum is the happy medium where sensory input is accurately perceived and properly interpreted. Here the sensory feedback correctly guides motor planning, movement and emotional responses.

Depending on a myriad of things, sensory processing issues can become less intense eventually. Sensory input can become better integrated. Sensory sensitivities and the need for more sensory input can become better modulated. How? What is helpful?

Vestibular input. The vestibular system provides sensory feedback about a child’s head in space. It is vital for postural control. Insecure postural control causes so much anxiety. When the body can’t orient itself properly with changes in position – chaos may ensue.

Core muscle control. A stable core provides a stable background for movement. A strong core ensures grounded, strong, purposeful movements. Read more here.

Proper proprioceptive feedback. This is the body’s sense of position and movement. Movements can be executed with the correct amount of force/effort when you have a good sense of where your joints are. These first three aspects are great confidence builders. When your body responds the way it should, or the way you want it to… just wow.

Primitive reflex inhibition. With a retained Fear Paralysis Reflex, children are overly sensitive to sensory stimuli. The Moro Reflex over-stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, causing continuous fight or flight response. Read more here.

Tactile stimulation helps infants to integrate sensory experiences. It stimulates healthy proprioceptive feedback. Read more here.

Down regulation of emotional states. Story time, calming music, sensory water or sand play, deep breathing, yoga and mindfulness helps to calm and soothe.

Magnesium supplementation. Magnesium deficiency causes hyperirritability. Deficiency can mimic stimming behaviours in children. Stimming is viewed as a protective response to sensory overload, or too much stimuli. Never supplement without consulting your healthcare practitioner.

Rhythmic Movement Therapy (RMT) for integrating the emotional brain (which is so connected with smells) and prefrontal cortex (conscious reasoning). RMT helps inhibit primitive reflexes and helps to establish conscious control over emotional reactions to stimuli, by establishing brain connections.

Massage over the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is meant to bring balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. To override anxiety so to speak. This nerve is connected with vision, speech, heart rate, stomach, bowel functioning and more.

Attachment parenting. Having a calm dependable primary carer to help make sense of sensory turmoil. Lots of loving support, hugs and touch. Hold your child’s hand every time they need it. They will decide when they are ready to let go.

Olfactory stimulation. Smells have powerful sensory and emotional connotations. Smells can reawaken the senses in children with sensory neglect. Essential oils are very useful.

Limit screen time. Enough said.


Sand & Glitter would like to thank Caitlin Truman-Baker from ctbdesign for this truly inspired blog post cover image.


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The power of smell

How smells affect the senses and a host of other cognitive processes



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