Sensory Processing after a Brain Injury
Most people will be familiar with five of our senses (taste, touch, sight, hearing, smell), but neuroscientists say that we actually have many more – some say up to 33!
If you close your eyes and lift your finger to your ear, you will know where it is without seeing it. This is called proprioception, it is one of our lesser known senses and is ‘the process in which nerve endings in the muscles and joints are stimulated (made to operate) when the body moves so that a person is aware of their body’s position’.
Sensory integration develops throughout our childhoods and continues to play a big role in how we perceive the world. Our brains will take in information through our senses and then process this information to respond and adapt to environmental demands. Without always realising it, our senses are engaged in even the most straightforward experiences. For example, when eating an apple, our brain will receive the following information:
- Sight (it is green)
- Touch (it is round and firm)
- Sound (it is crunchy)
- Smell (it is fresh)
- Taste (is is ripe and sweet)
Sensory processing difficulties as a result of brain injury
When a child suffers a brain injury, their perception and ability to process information received through their senses can be affected. Children can present with different types of sensory processing difficulties. Some examples are:
- Hyper (over) sensitive
- Fear of heights
- Dislike of touch experiences e.g. nail cutting, messy play, hair cutting
- Dislike of loud and sudden sounds
- Avoidance of playground equipment (swings and slides)
- Hypo (under) sensitive
- Appears to have no fear or doesn’t feel pain
- Seeks movement or touch opportunities (fidgets, rocks, runs about, leans on peers)
- Mouths or chews things
- Poor attention to the environment or people around
- Motor Planning (praxis)
- Appears clumsy
- Difficulty transmitting movement ideas from the brain
- Difficulty planning and executing new movements
- Poor posture
- Slouches at desk
- Fidgets/difficulty sitting in one position for extended period of time
- Impact on fine motor coordination & ball skills
- Poor balance
These difficulties can be distressing for children and prevent them from participating in everyday activities.
Sensory Integration Therapy
Sensory Integration Therapy, originally developed by Dr Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist, in the late 1960s, aims to stimulate the senses in a structured and repetitive way. The theory behind this is that, over time, the brain will adapt and allow children to process and react to sensations more efficiently.
A trained therapist will carry out an assessment on the child to determine what sensory processing difficulties they may have. Sensory Integration Therapy is usually carried out though play based activities with sensory equipment and works to change how the brain reacts to sensory input. The therapy is designed to help children learn about and develop their senses in a calm and enjoyable environment.
Sensory activities and equipment can include balls, trampolines, fibre optics, mirrors, bubble tubes, soft play, swings, musical instruments, messy play and light walls.
Sensory Integration Therapy is usually carried out at specialist centres but can also be carried out in schools and within the home.
Benefits of Sensory Input
Benefits of sensory integration therapy to children with brain injuries can include:
- Learning to anticipate action and outcome
- Correctly interpreting sensory input
- Developing a better sense of space
- Developing positive behaviour patterns
- Eliminating fear
- Encouraging play and socialisation
- Lessening sensory defensiveness
- Minimising input intolerance
- Reducing negative physical reactions
Studies have reported positive outcomes for children with sensory processing difficulties or autism. Many of our clients benefit from sensory therapy as part of a personalised therapy programme. Therapy often involves our client’s parents as well, learning how they can provide appropriate sensory activities at home and having some fun with their children at the same time.
As well as being used as part of a therapy programme, sensory play can be a calming experience for children with a brain injury and sensory difficulties. In August 2018, Legoland in Windsor opened a new ‘Total Sensory Space’. Guests can ‘discover an open space full of interactive sensory experiences, with vibrating bean bags, soft seating, interactive projections, bubble tubes, infinity tunnels, tactile panels and soft lighting, all designed to create a calm space to relax in for those who need it.’
It is encouraging to see more and more awareness being raised for children with brain injuries and sensory difficulties and I hope many children will be able to enjoy the new Total Sensory Space.
Mollie Benjamin is a Solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp specialising in Child Brain Injury claims. If you would like specialist advice about making a claim on behalf of a brain-injured child, contact her free of charge and in confidence on 020 3973 4998 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, you may complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Child Brain Injury team will contact you.
 Watling, R., & Hauer, S. (2015). Effectiveness of Ayres sensory integration and sensory-based interventions for people with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 69(5), 1-12.