What the Church needs to know about sensory processing

Many care-experienced children experience sensory integration difficulties – what does this mean?

I find cotton wool quite weird to touch, a little bit ‘squeaky’ to hold. I love the smell of bonfires, but the aroma of a bin lorry makes my stomach turn.

We all have preferences in the things we like to smell, taste, touch, see and hear. Some of those are strong likes or dislikes, others are mild preferences. For most of us, they do not affect our ability to go about our everyday life. For many care-experienced children this is not the case.

Sensory processing describes the way the body receives sensory information into the nervous system, processes it and then responds appropriately.

Think about the things we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell on a daily basis – it is a huge amount. Our body receives stimulation from so many different things, and it takes that information and processes it so that we can respond proportionately and appropriately; “That was delicious,” “Ouch, that was hot!” “I love that song.” This is also known as sensory integration.

Sensory processing/integration is a vital part of the building blocks of our lives, that equips us to engage with and understand the world around us, from building relationships to doing everyday tasks. When these systems do not work as they should, it can affect every part of our lives.

We all learn about the five senses when we are children. Maybe you were lucky enough to learn a song about them to help you remember! In actual fact, we have eight sensory systems. Here are the 3 that probably didn’t feature in that song from primary school:

Proprioception. This is what helps us know where we are in the world, how hard we’re pushing or pulling something, and it’s what helps us to coordinate (or not!) our movements, from writing, to running, to throwing balls.

Vestibular. This system in our body is what keeps us upright. It works closely with our sight to help us be able to reach out and pick up that biscuit on the plate in front of us.

Interoception. This is a hidden system, but a vital one. It’s the one that tells us we’re hungry or cold, that we need the toilet or have a sore knee.

When all the systems work together, we have a feeling of being ‘just right’ in our body, or the ability to regulate and problem solve in order to achieve that state. When one or more of these systems isn’t working as it should, and it’s having a detrimental effect on their daily life, someone may be diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which is a banner term that covers a wide range of sensory integration difficulties.

As Christians, we believe we were created by a relational, emotional God. We believe that He designed our bodies to function perfectly, and so much of what we’re now learning confirms that part of that design is that we were made to develop healthily in and through relationships.

Even as early as when a child is developing in the womb, they receive stimulation to their sensory systems. This is why some of us play Mozart to our growing bumps, in the hope that they might be born a genius! In the womb, and once they are born and are growing, babies learn about the world through their senses. As they are talked to, played with, nurtured and have their needs met, all their senses are involved and they develop through the child’s attachment relationships. Their relationships with adults are building their ability to integrate the sensory input in their world – what an amazing design!

Many care-experienced children experience sensory integration difficulties because of the gaps in these attachment relationships, perhaps because of neglect or because of other adverse childhood experiences (known as ACEs). Whether they have a conscious memory of what happened to them or can articulate it, is not relevant to the impact it has on their senses, because the body remembers. Sensory memories are imprinted on the part of the nervous system that also controls our fight / flight / freeze response.

What could this look like in day-to-day life?

It might look like a response that seems inappropriate or ‘over the top.’ This isn’t deliberate or wilful, but because something in the sensory system has been triggered. Maybe it was a smell or a particular song that they subconsciously connect to a traumatic event? This causes a reaction in them as though they were experiencing the trauma again, for the first time. From the outside this may look like an aggressive, angry teenager not doing as they’re asked, or a disobedient child running off when they ‘should’ know better. In reality, it’s a frightened child.

Perhaps there’s been an absence of nurture which leaves gaps in their foundations, meaning certain systems in the body don’t develop as they were designed to. You might see behaviours you’d expect in a toddler but not in an 8-year-old. On one of my children’s school reports, the phrase ‘still likes to explore everything with their mouth’ was written when that was not appropriate for their chronological age.

It might look like never being able to find that ‘just right’ state because of difficulties regulating in some or all sensory systems. A child who’s always fidgeting, who doesn’t seem to be able to concentrate. Or a child who seems to shut down and not respond.

We might see children who are ‘over-responsive to sensory information. The ‘normal’ sights, sounds, feelings in the world around quickly overwhelms them and triggers a fight / flight response.

On the other hand, an ‘under-responsive child isn’t getting enough sensory input so goes looking for it in what can sometimes seem strange and inappropriate ways.

It may be why there are children for whom getting dressed or changed is incredibly challenging, because seams feel excruciating, labels feel like they’re attacking you and waistbands feel like they’re squeezing all the air out of your body. When a child feels like this, that’s where all their attention in their mind and body is, so trying to focus on an activity, instructions being given or anything else, is a little tricky?

How can churches help families?

1. Look beyond behaviour.

All behaviour is communication. Let's come with a posture that seeks to understand first, and then respond, not react. When we do this, it demonstrates a value for the child and their family, but also means how we respond will be more helpful, compassionate, and effective.

2. Ask the grown up.

Parents and carers are the ones who know the child best and will be (or will be becoming) an expert in their child, knowing why they struggle with and what helps them. So, ask them questions – tell me about your child, what do they like, what do they find difficult, how can I help them? Every child and situation is different so we can’t assume that if we have known one child with a sensory processing disorder, then we understand them all. Also, when we ask, it shows that we value their insight and that we want to journey with them. That can make an enormous difference to adoptive parents or foster carers who can often feel as though they must fight for their voice to be heard in all contexts.

3. Open your eyes!

As we learn more about sensory integration difficulties, through individuals who are facing the challenges or as we seek to broaden our awareness of things that might affect care-experienced children in our churches, take some time to look at your church setting through their eyes. What are the things that might be challenging for children with sensory difficulties? And more importantly, what could you do to help make their experience of church easier? Here are some things that some churches have done. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but it might inspire you as you consider ‘what next’:

  • Ear defenders in all sizes (not just for newborns) for anyone who might find the music a bit loud.
  • A box of fiddle toys for children who might need those to help concentrate or feel ‘just right’ available during the service and in children’s/youth groups (age appropriate).
  • ‘Sensory breaks’ as a regular part of children’s and youth work. This gives regular opportunities for children to get up, move around or do something physical.
  • Create a cosy, quieter chill out space that children can retreat to when they feel overwhelmed (sensory or otherwise!).
  • Sensory room (in contrast to the above!) that stimulates the senses – with lights, fiddle toys, sounds and all kinds of textures to interact with

4. PRAY

Always. In every circumstance. To the God who created our body and knows every system and nuance better than we ever will. The one who know each one of us to the detail of how many hairs are on our heads (Luke 12:7). Pray that we would see His kingdom come and His will be done, here on earth, in our homes, families, churches, in our bodies, our sensory systems and beyond, as it is in heaven.

Author:
Claire at Home for Good


Date published:
27 April 2021


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