All of our senses have a development process that they run through; there are experiences we can perceive first and ones we learn to perceive later on. I was trained as a primary school teacher so I find that I always think about sensory development as a curriculum of the senses. There is a visual equivalent to learning to count and a visual equivalent to learning algebra. Likewise, there is an auditory equivalent, gustatory, olfactory, vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile equivalent.
The majority of my work focuses on people who have profound and multiple learning disabilities for these people knowing the development of the sensory systems can be essential to enabling them to connect and engage with their sensory environments. I use early developmental sensory experiences to inspire simple communicative exchanges between myself and the people I work with.
Knowing about the sensory experiences accessible during early sensory development is not only relevant to people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, they come into play for a lot of other groups too and indeed, in one way or another, for everybody. For example: people with degenerative conditions, such as dementia, tend to track back through their sensory abilities in order, and so it is through early developmental sensory experiences that I am able to maintain a connection with someone entering the later stages of dementia.
Understanding the development of the senses can give you extra insight as you seek to support someone with sensory processing difficulties. The sensory experiences from early development tend to be most strongly recognised by the brain, they come through loudest as it were, so in understanding whether someone is processing early or late sensory experiences better you can understand how to select experiences to best support them.
The early developmental sensory experiences are the first ones wired into our brains. Because they were there first they have the most rehearsal through life and so generally are easiest for the brain to process. This makes them into the sensory equivalent of television for the brain – It does not need to make very much effort, it can just lie there on the sofa and receive stimulation. We all find early developmental sensory experiences calming. They can help to calm and relax and so have particular pertinence to people struggling with anxiety. They’re also great for engaging and soothing little babies.
Early developmental sensory experiences
1. Visual – Red, or warm pink tones. Sight becomes active in the womb, so most of us (if light did not get through to you when you were in the womb for whatever reason then this won’t be you, for example if your mother was pregnant in the depths of winter and consequently always swaddled in many jumpers) get the opportunity to practice seeing this colour tone before we are born.
2. Auditory – White noise, have you ever heard a parent say the only time their child sleeps is when they do the vacuuming or when they are in the car? Like vision our hearing becomes active in the womb and we hear the white noise sound of the amniotic fluid moving around us. If you are feeling anxious try a white noise app on your phone, or search youtube where you can find recordings of sounds from within the womb.
3. Gustatory – Sweet tastes, it is no surprise to learn we are all born with a sweet tooth. That we reach for sweet fatty foods when stressed is because we find them innately soothing. Other strong flavours that we were exposed to in early childhood may hold a similar sway over us. Some spice flavours penetrate the amniotic fluids and are tasted before birth, as are peppermint and ginger common morning sickness remedies.
4. Tactile – Rough textures, a not so intuitive one but good to know if you are looking for an alternative baby gift for a friend’s newborn: try sandpaper, they’ll love it.
5. Olfactory – The start of the development of the sense of smell is the smells our own body produces. Yes, those ones. If you’re not keen on using these to soothe yourself try similar ones, scents such as lavender or camomile have very heavy base notes chemically similar to faeces.
We have two types of smell receptors and alongside those for the volatile scents such as lavender we have receptors specifically for pheromone scents. Again if you do not want to use the actual scent itself try a close substitute: musk scented perfumes are often made from the pheromone scents of other animals.
Have fun on your sensory adventures, a connection with your sensory world is good for your mental health and there is research to indicate an engagement with sensory stimuli is preventative of stress, anxiety and depression. Essentially when you connect with a sensation you are being mindful. So you may get funny looks when you sniff all the different shampoos in the supermarket, I know I do, but it is beneficial for you so enjoy it.
Joanna Grace is a Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, author, trainer, TEDx speaker and Founder of The Sensory Projects. She was recently awarded a place on the Dimensions Leaders in Learning Disability and Autism list for her work in the field of Advocacy Media and Policy. She is an avid user of social media and always happy to connect with people to share insight and ideas around sensory engagement.