Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Our sensory world

On Thursday and Friday last week I went to a professional development course presented by the author of this book, Dr Winnie Dunn. She is an American occupational therapist who has developed a model of how people process sensory information (and a measurement tool to assess how individuals do this) and has now published a book to present this information in a way that is more accessible to the general public.

I'm all for making academic information accessible to the general public. In the world of occupational therapy (and maybe in other professions too, but I'll stick to what I know about) I think there are way too many therapists who like to see what they do as some sort of magical mystery technique or trick that miraculously fixes people. In reality, I think there is no quick fix for many of the people we work with and a lot of what we do is just plain common sense that we should be assisting people to discover for themselves.

So I found it really interesting to listen to someone with a long academic and research background saying much the same thing. In a nutshell, she describes four major sensory types: Seekers, Bystanders, Avoiders and Sensors. Seekers love to get lots of sensory information from their environment. These are the people who like to skydive, go on wild rides, eat spicy foods, touch everything and everyone, or thrive in busy and visually chaotic places. Bystanders are the cruisy types who often don't register as much about what's going on around them. They might always miss the turn off when driving somewhere, not notice the mess around the house or work on oblivious to the fire alarms going crazy around them. Avoiders are the schedule-aholics who crave routine, are easily overwhelmed when things get crazy and often find it easier to withdraw from crowded or noisy environments. Sensors are the sort that are always commenting about things being too loud, too spicy, the tags on clothes being too tickly and things like sand and dirt making their skin crawl. Some of us are strongly one or the other of these types, others of us are mixtures of several. For example, we might hate the feel of the tags on clothing, but love eating lots of different things.

I am a mixture of a sensor and an avoider. Predominantly I like things to stay the same, and I tend to notice if things change even a little bit in my environment. And I always want the volume of the noise turned down.

We also heard about some really interesting research happening at the moment working on whether there is a link between these sensory processing styles and temperament (from the psychology literature) and also how different processing styles of parents and their infants/toddlers affects the parent-child relationship.

From this course, I am hoping to link up with a couple of other local therapists for a bit of peer mentoring around the material we covered. Since no one else from my workplace was there, I am hoping this keeps me motivated to actually follow through with what we learned.


Wendy said...

Wow, sounds fascinating. Now I reveal my practical bent - what does all this mean in terms of application to practise?

Karen said...

You use the Sensory Profile (or the adolescent/adult one, or the infant toddler one, or the school companion one, or the supplement...she's spawned an empire of new assessments with all this stuff) to work out where the person sits in relation to those four "types." And then you modify their environment/activities to accommodate their particular preferences. Because one of her big things is that none of these behaviours necessarily need "fixing" but it's all about accommodating environments and activities to meet people's needs and to help them manage the tasks they need to do and want to do.