Do you know that awful sensation you can get when you wear scratchy clothing? How about feeling sensitive to loud noises, like vacuums or airplanes? What about only being able to eat foods with certain textures or tolerate pressured touch? These are all examples of what can be sensory integration issues. When they get in the way of our being able to function, it can be diagnosed as Sensory Processing disorder (SPD) (or sensory integration dysfunction). While the validity of the diagnosis is still debated, it is a very real part of many people’s experience. Each of us are registering sensory information non-stop through our five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell) as well as through our awareness of where our body is in space and how to move and stay balanced in our environment. Sensory processing problems occur when our brain struggles to organize certain stimuli or when our bodies/minds are needing and seeking more sensory input.
Sensory Integration and Trauma
There are many ways that trauma symptoms present, one of which being sensitivities to certain triggers, or things/people/places that remind of us of a really awful experience we survived (a certain smell, the place an incident took place, the sound of something that also occurred when we were in distress). As a result, some sensory issues can be both neurological and/or trauma-related. Furthermore, when we are exposed to distressing situations or neglect early on in life, our brain's development of registering and organizing sensory information can be stunted (Kaiser et al., 2010). It is also a common phenomenon that the brain learns to be hyper-aware or on alert due to experiencing trauma and so our input of sensory information can become super sensitive. This is our brain's way of protecting us by making sure it is registering any possible threat.
The good news is that treatments have been effective in restoring sensory integration, especially when sensory integration and psychotherapy are combined (Kaiser et al., 2010). At Shenandoah Art Therapy, particularly when we know a sensory issue is connected to a past experience, we will integrate the triggering sensory experiences into the art process and/or trauma processing to help the brain learn to steer away from generalizing the sensation. For example, let’s say we work with someone who doesn’t like any loud sounds because he lost a family member in a tornado where the wind blew debris into the house, broke windows and sirens went off. As a result, his brain learned to register all loud noises as a threat. We can talk about those sounds in his trauma processing and include it in what is called a graphic narrative to help the brain learn to tell the difference between the loud noises from his trauma and the loud sounds in his everyday environment.
How is it treated?
Occupational therapy is often very effective for treatment of SPD. There are all kinds of great resources, mostly for kids but also some for adults that you can find on these websites: The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc., Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation or Child Mind Institute: Sensory Processing.
We also know that sensory integration can greatly impact our mental health. It can coincide with some unwanted behavior and symptoms, like aggression and anger, attention problems, trouble transitioning, depression or anxiety and that can effect school performance or the ability to function well at work. Art therapy can be an effective treatment, particularly for both visual/tactile sensory integration as well as for processing the mental, emotional and social impact and can help kids perform and focus better at school (Kearns, 2004). To work on those combined issues, I recommend calling for a consultation on how we can set up individual sessions for you or your child. However, for focusing specifically on sensory integration, check out this opportunity:
Shenandoah Art Therapy is offering a 6-day summer sensory art class that will be focusing on the senses, one each day, and will teach kids how to integrate their senses in a fun and engaging art-making experience (for kids ages 6-12). You can sign up for one or both weeks.
To sign up, contact Laura at 540-255-1458 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kaiser, E. M., Gillette, C. S., & Spinazzola, J. (2010). A controlled pilot-outcome study of sensory integration (SI) in
the treatment of complex adaptation to traumatic stress. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 19(7), 699-720.
Kearns, D. (2004). Art therapy with a child experiencing sensory integration difficulty. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 21(2), pp. 95-101.