Have you Ever Wondered How Sensory Distortions Affect Behaviour?
How the Emotions are Affected by the Senses
I knew that the emotions are affected by our sensory experience, but it is not always easy to translate a tantrum into language, whether you are experiencing it or observing it. Why does this happen? What triggered it? How does the person feel? It was something I wanted to investigate further. And not just tantrums, but other behaviour displayed by our children with spectrum symptoms.
Then the opportunity for understanding more about this, happened. A mum had booked in with me to bring her daughter just to sort out her 3D vision. I felt that it would be a fairly quick session in a very bright young lady. But what happened in that session was the catalyst for this latest book.
The girl, and we shall call her Emma, and her Mum Sarah, explained during the session about her moods and her anxieties, and it became clear during the session that her vision was impacting her so badly, that she had developed a set of coping strategies and methods of dealing with her environment. And these strategies were only able to help to a point.
But what this demonstrated to her, Sarah and me during the session, was that her eyesight was really quite disabling. And no one knew. Sarah had taken her to specialists over the years, and she had seen the best. But what we uncovered was a shock to us all, and enlightening, and empowering.
Emma was able to tell us about her experiences as we screened her, and as I found more issues with her neurodevelopment, a story unfolded.
It was emotional for Sarah and I as much as it was for Emma. For years she had put her emotional state down to it just being ‘her’, rather than understanding that she was compensating so hard to function that seemingly small things would tip her into overload. When I screened Emma, she had very little tracking, less than 20 seconds worth before she found it impossible to carry on. Imagine sitting in a classroom for hours on end attempting to study when your eyes are capable of practically no functional ability to copy from the board, read a line of text, add a stack of numbers and any other task required. It is very limiting. No one had ever explained this to Emma or Sarah, because they didn’t know.
This revelation alone was enlightening, but there was more. Emma’s pupils were not contracting properly. This means a problem in the brainstem. And her pupils contracted differently from each other. That must be disorientating. Too much light going in. Dazzle, and slow adjustment to lighting in her environment. For example if Emma came inside from a very sunny day, her eyes would struggle to adjust to the relative darkness for some minutes, if at all. And visa versa.
Her head righting reflex was not working correctly indicating that her vision and balance were not connected up properly. Luckily I know how to sort these issues out.
It was a surprise to uncover these things when she had just come to get her eyes yoked together for 3D vision.
This collection of symptoms was very stressful for Emma. She would get panicky in certain environments, especially if she could not hear properly. She would have meltdowns too sometimes but could not explain why. Never having had optimum vision, she was unaware of the impact of her limited visual capabilities and their impact on her feelings and coping ability.
This girl,with all these problems, was living a life where everyone thought she was like them apart from very poor vision one eye (+15 which had gradually been corrected to +7). No one knew about the other symptoms or that this was the reason for her behaviour.
This case illustrates rather well how we can assume things about people. Even people we know well. What is going on in the head of an autistic child when they melt down? Do you know? Can you guess? Are you sure?
From what I have observed in my clinic, the array of sensory distortions and the array of symptoms arising from that is often what triggers meltdowns. Other reasons include reactions to food, for example. It has to be said there could be loads more reasons why certain behaviour is displayed, but this book concentrates on those related to sensory distortions.
The senses: vision; hearing; touch; smell; and taste; for example can be reasons why there are meltdowns. This chart is in no way comprehensive and you will not see all of these symptoms in the same person, they are observations I have found for each of these issues. Remember that it is possible to have a combination of issues and so the symptoms will be worse, more obvious and usually with social interaction implications.
Potential Visual and Balance issues
Symptoms you may observe
issues with eye tracking;
difficulty copying from the board, difficulty adding up,
problems with reading,
social impact: gets upset when there is
much movement and noise( i.e. in a nursery), disorientating,
telegraph poles move when you walk down the street. Tracking issues are often found in headrighting issues too (gaze control which is when the inner ear nerves are properly connected to the eye nerves). rocking or repetitive movements,
needing to keep still,
not making eye contact,
getting very close to things to look at them, not being able to catch a ball or throw accurately,
clinginess in public, a sense of insecurity
non yoking (3D)
no depth perception,
difficulty catching balls,
difficulty copying from board
clinginess and insecurity in public
difficulty perceiving where things are (how far away)
pupillary lack of response
slow adjustment to different light levels, after images and dazzle,
lack of eye contact, poor visual judgement
vision not connected to the balance
tripping up, bumping into things, disorientated
inability to ride a bike (though not always) ‘bumpy’ experience of life
Potential Hearing issues:
noises too loud,
pain from the sounds or certain sounds, sound not heard in a linear fashion, inability to follow instructions or make sense of language,
big reactions to sounds,
Potential touch issues
hate wearing clothes,
will only wear certain soft clothes,
seeks out certain textures,
will take all their clothes off in inappropriate places,
cannot feel pain when they should do from falling over,
feel too much pain,
unaware they are burning themselves,
poor body awareness (i.e.where the body is),
Potential Taste Issues
intolerant of certain foods and may only tolerate certain textures,
tongue too far forward in the mouth, seeking out highly spiced foods,
will only tolerate foods of a certain colour,
Potential smell issues
intolerant of certain smells, seeks out certain smells,
big reactions to smells
What is the impact of these on behaviour?
Imagine you are three years old and at nursery. There is much rushing of colour past you. There is much noise. Everything is too bright. You don’t know where you are. Your mum and dad aren’t there. You are being told off because you are upset and no one understands how scared you are. Those rushing colours are children running around, but you cannot focus on them or track their movements. The sounds are the children playing, but you don’t know that because you are frightened and you can’t see them. You are dazzled by too much light entering your eyes as your pupils are not contracting. Your dress is uncomfortable, it
annoys your skin. You are stressed and so your breathing is shallow and the adrenalin and other hormones in your system is stop you being able to concentrate.
You are on sensory overload, terrified and upset.
No wonder (if you know what the symptoms mean).
Imagine you are five years old and at school. You have no eye tracking and you can’t sit still because nobody knows you are reacting to something you have eaten. Your clothes hurt. They irritate. So you strip off in class and run outside to get some fresh air and calm down. But your whole class laughs at you because that is not how to behave.
You are four years old and at nursery. You paint the page black because you have no pupillary control and too much light is going in your eyes. It hurts. The only way to get relief is to paint things black. But they tell your parents you are disturbed because black is a sign of depression.
Can you see how judging this behaviour when you have no idea what is going on, is disastrous?
My own sensory experiences are relevant here too. Sudden sharp noises affect me.
Female opera singers are agony to me. Sounds hurts. I have no idea how people find opera appealing.
I cannot look at yellow paper as that causes pain too.
So many of these sensory distortions cause pain, or discomfort. But if it’s a child experiencing them, they can’t tell you. They don’t know any different.
Imagine you have these symptoms. Really imagine it. Try to do something. See the impact. Whilst it is easy to read about these symptoms, and even imagine some of them, that is very different from actually living with several sensory distortions. For example a neurotypical person might have a stress bassline of say 5%, and the things that go wrong in the day will build that higher. Maybe up to 35%. Remember I am dyscalculate so when I quote numbers here they are from a very skewed perspective. A person living with sensory distortions may begin their day at a stress level of 70%, and so when things are frustrating, they quickly rocket to 100% and meltdown. So these meltdowns are sometimes the result of coping with too much and reaching overload point. Too much noise, too much light, uncomfortable skin, and so on. Add in being told off by teachers, or parents or being bullied, and where do you have time to develop antibullying strategies when you are so close to overload all the time because you are managing high levels of stress.
‘Emma’ age 17
How did your visual problems affect you before you came to see me?
I got headaches a lot and I always had to squint to see anything. At school I always had to sit in a specific place to see the whiteboard and even then I would occasionally struggle to make out what it said.
I panicked that I could not get the right information and at times would reach high levels of meltdown simply because I didn't know what was being asked of me or what I needed to know.
My eyesight was always a purely physical issue for me, and one that I never really thought about, and the emotional side of its impacts was later realised. The only problem I ever thought was major with it was my inability to see 3D!
What was your behaviour like before?
My behaviour has always been very high tension and insecurity driven. I have often been described as dramatic as I completely took situations way out of control and regularly stressed myself to the point of illness over seemingly minor things.
It appeared I had a very negative outlook on most things including my body image, ability and school work and I had very little confidence. I dislike answering phones or talking to people and I get embarrassed very easily. I hate being late and I become incredibly agitated when I do not have all available information or I am pushed out of my comfort zone.
My coping mechanism has always been to desperately try to control some other part of my life (e.g. relationship or eating) to balance things, but this has often just led to a higher level of stress and then as a consequence, illness.
How did it make you feel?
I always felt very highly criticised for things I knew were not my fault but were unable to explain. I felt insecure and untrusting and had very little social contact as a result. My confidence was extremely low and I was terrified by embarrassing myself or coming off as stupid.
My insecurities ranged from relationship issues to body image and school work related stress. I would feel misunderstood and alone and would often wonder if there was something emotionally wrong with me.
At no point did I attribute my struggles to my eyesight as I had always assumed things were an emotional problem. It has always made me feel very isolated and frightened.
What situations did you struggle with?
I struggled mostly with issues in school and in social situations. In school I panicked because I could not read textbooks or boards very well nor write very fast.
I also struggled with social interaction (which I can now attribute to sensory impairment) as I always felt like I could not trust people and I had jealous and dramatic tendencies. Some of these ideas were strengthened by further events but I am aware that my initial kneejerk reaction to untrustworthiness meant I coped badly with these problems.
Relationships were not common for me, I know I am very young but I did not have much attention from anyone, I think due to the fact that I struggled to understand people and follow conversation and I was not at all confident and would often use sarcasm as a way to protect myself.
I have been bullied a lot throughout my childhood, often for my sight issues (the wearing of glasses) and my size, but I think that now I can see that the comments on my weight may have been mainly miscommunications due to my lack of ability to encode certain information yet.
On a practical level I would often struggle to handle instructions and remembering say, answer phone messages or chores. During my driving exam I had to ask the examiner several times which way I was meant to go, and I cannot always hear what is being asked of me. Concentration is not my strong point, and this I have normally attributed to the fact that a high level of concentration takes a lot of effort for me, and occasionally I think this effort is both too much and painful, however I think most of the time it is me being lazy and not pushing my limits!
Describe the vision please?
Vision is blurry and difficult at both short and long distances due to great difference in my eyes.
I constantly feel tension in my temples.
My eyes find it hard to focus and I had a severely lazy eye a few years ago.
I cannot track very well and it is painful at far distances.
I struggle to maintain eye contact and my way around this is almost to defocus my eyes and look 'through' people (making me look highly vacant!).
My eyes are often worse when I'm tired and take a long time to adjust to light changes.
This was Emma at her first visit to me. A month later she and her mother reported the following changes: tracking had improved from almost nonexistent to nearly two minutes. This improvement meant that she was now more comfortable in her surroundings and felt for the first time in her life that she had found something that gave her hope. She now understood herself and her reactions, and had spent a long time reflecting on her life and the events that shaped her. Other changes were that her balance had improved and she felt more secure when walking around.
The advantage Emma had was that she was old enough to understand her situations, whereas little children are often not so able to put their experience into words to explain how they are experiencing the world.
A child aged nine came to see me. His parents were worried that he was autistic as he was experiencing symptoms that seemed like autism. He had no friends at school and was left out of parties and events his peers held. What I found when I met him, was a very amenable child who coped really well with the screening that I did with him. I found a problem with his headrighting and his tracking. And that was pretty much all that was not functioning at optimum level. When the headrighting is not functioning as it should, one perceives the world as though sitting in the back of a bumpy car looking through binoculars. That would be an uncomfortable symptom to be living with, and I imagine it would make one feel irritable. Headrighting is our ability to maintain gaze while either we, or the subject of our gaze is moving. When the headrighting is not attained, or partially attained, then that is indeed one symptom to be found in autistic individuals.
Yellow paper with black writing will give me an instant headache if I look at it. I do not see clouds in three dimensions (though that is starting to improve). When I am tired at night and I attempt to read, the words disappear and the page is blank. This is how I experience Irlen syndrome and it will be different for everyone. My son who has now recovered from Irlen syndrome since we did neurodevelopment with him, could not look at white paper. His experience of school and attempting to read as a young child was blighted by being in pain looking at white paper. It seemed to us back then that he could not concentrate and was being difficult. He would turn his head just a second after looking at the paper. With that going on no wonder he could not attempt to read. He wasn’t being naughty but it seemed that way.
Irlen syndrome is a dreadfully disabling visual condition when the sufferer does not have coloured lenses or a neurodevelopmental programme. Paraphrasing Sally Goddard in The ABC of Learning, she states that light hits the retina, then goes to the thalamus as nerve impulses, and this nerve information then gets transferred into two types of cells: small for motion and large for colour. In dyslexics and (and in my opinion those with Irlen syndrome) these get mixed up to produce light sensitivity.
When I think about what I have been explaining above, I always come back to mechanical explanations; if the actual physical components and structures of the brain involved in sensory input are not working correctly, then the sensory inputs will not be giving accurate information and so the understanding of the environment will be distorted (i.e. it won’t function properly). But if the structures are improved, then it will work better. So if I am saying that the senses work mechanically (they are built from muscles and nerves) and if the mechanisms are improved or restored to optimum, then the sensory inputs will be relayed into the brain properly and so the outputs will improve (reading, writing, interaction with the environment).
Furthermore, brain development is hierarchical and so an understanding of this is required to create optimum pain free and functional improvement.
When you are observing your learning disabled child, remember that you most likely have no idea how they are perceiving their world, and they are doing their best with what they have. And if you want help, it is available.
I am sure that every person reading this who interacts with people with learning issues would be able to write a book about that person’s experiences. There is so much to say. I have kept this brief so that you can take quickly from the examples, the information that the senses need to be working properly for the person to interact with the environment properly. That brain development is hierarchical. That it can be improved upon if you know how. That we never know how our senses may be affecting our behaviour or experience of the world. That it can be improved with the right knowledge.
Further Information about the help we can provide:
What I offer and method of delivery
1:1 two hour child centred family sessions with one hour follow ups with the purpose of finding out the nerve input status of the child and addressing the findings in a gentle environment that facilitates proper help and positive change.
Get the Parent course at my college: The College of Neuro and Sensory Development: