A sensory experience refers to the perception or reception of information through the five senses — sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Current interpretations among trained professionals also include proprioception and vestibular senses as critical elements to consider.
Sensory experiences occur when sensory organs detect stimuli from the environment and transmit signals to the brain for interpretation. For instance, seeing a beautiful sunset, feeling the warmth of sunlight on your skin, tasting a favorite food, hearing music, and smelling a flower — all of these are different types of sensory experiences that shape our understanding and interactions with the world around us.
Sensory experiences are crucial for individuals with autism because they often experience sensory processing differences or sensitivities, as compared to other people. This means the brains of neurodiverse students may interpret and respond to sensory information differently than neurotypical individuals.
Some people with autism may experience hypersensitivity, which means they become overwhelmed by sensory input like loud noises, bright lights, certain textures, and strong smells. Others may be hyposensitive, requiring more intense sensory input to perceive stimuli.
At Transitions, our curriculum and trained educators work to create sensory experiences that add to the development of neurodiverse students without triggering adverse responses.
Types of Sensory Experiences
Sensory experiences encompass various ways we perceive the world around us. They can be categorized into different types based on the human senses:
- Visual: Seeing the world through light and color.
- Auditory: Hearing sounds, music, speech, and noises.
- Tactile: Feeling textures, temperatures, pressure, and vibrations.
- Gustatory: Tasting flavors and detecting various sensations like sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami.
- Olfactory: Smelling scents and identifying different odors.
- Proprioceptive: Sensing the body’s position, movement, and balance.
- Vestibular: Sensing equilibrium and spatial orientation through the inner ear.
Each of these experiences contributes uniquely to how we perceive and interact with our environment.
The Relationship Between Sensory Experiences and Emotions
The sensory experience of the world can impact our emotions, and the reverse is also true. One study from 2014, for instance, found that experiencing the emotion of fear can decrease a person’s tactile experience. In this case, the negative emotion causes the person’s ability to experience touch to be negatively impacted.
In the case of providing sensory experiences for people with autism, evidence suggests the right sensory input can have a positive influence on emotions. For instance, many people with autism seek sensory input as a form of self-soothing. These self-soothing behaviors may include making loud noises, pacing, fidgeting, or rocking. By providing controlled sensory experiences, the Transitions’ environment helps recreate this soothing input and provides a boost to emotional regulation.
The Role of Sensory Experience in Learning and Development
Sensory experiences play a vital role in learning and development in early childhood and beyond. Young adults with autism can benefit from sensory experiences in different ways, including developing sensory regulation skills that can help in uncontrolled environments. Following are a few ways that sensory experiences benefit learning and development across the lifespan:
- Brain Development: Sensory experiences stimulate brain development, creating neural connections and pathways. For instance, when a person touches different textures or hears various sounds, it helps brain growth and learning.
- Engagement and Exploration: Sensory activities engage individuals in active exploration, encouraging curiosity and experimentation. This hands-on learning fosters understanding and retention of concepts.
- Enhanced Memory: Sensory-rich experiences often lead to better memory retention. For instance, associating a smell or taste with a particular memory can trigger vivid recollection.
- Motor Skills Development: Sensory activities, like playing with different textures or manipulating objects, aid in the development of fine and gross motor skills.
- Language and Communication: Sensory experiences contribute to language development. Exploring different sounds and textures helps in understanding language and communication experiences.
- Regulation and Attention: Sensory experiences can help individuals regulate their emotions and attention. Certain sensory activities have a calming effect, aiding focus and emotional regulation.
- Cognitive Development: Sensory input helps in understanding cause-effect relationships, spatial awareness, and problem-solving skills.
- Social Interaction: Sensory experiences can be social activities, fostering communication and cooperation among individuals, especially in group settings.
Trained educators like the experts at Transitions often integrate sensory experiences into teaching methods to enhance learning outcomes. They cater to various learning styles and help individuals better grasp concepts by engaging multiple senses simultaneously.
How Nature Interventions Ease Anxiety and Depression
Nature interventions, often referred to as ecotherapy or green therapy, have shown promising results in easing anxiety and depression. They can help in the following ways:
- Reduced Stress: Spending time in nature has been linked to lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. The sights, sounds, and smells of natural environments promote relaxation and reduce the physiological signs of stress.
- Improved Mood: Interacting with nature triggers the release of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters associated with improved mood and happiness. This can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Mindfulness and Relaxation: Nature encourages mindfulness, allowing individuals to focus on the present moment. Activities such as forest bathing, gardening, and simply walking in natural settings promote relaxation and reduce negative thoughts.
- Physical Exercise: Many nature-based activities involve physical movement, such as hiking, gardening, and outdoor sports. Exercise itself is known to boost mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Social Interaction: Nature interventions often encourage social interaction, whether through group hikes, community gardening, or outdoor activities. Social connections can positively impact mental health while upholding Transitions’ community values.
- Connection with Something Larger: Being in nature often fosters a sense of awe and connection with the natural world, which can provide perspective and a sense of purpose, diminishing feelings of depression and anxiety.
- Distracting from Negative Thoughts: Engaging with nature can divert attention from negative thoughts and stressors, offering a mental break from daily pressures.
- Improved Sleep: Exposure to natural light and physical activity in outdoor settings can positively impact sleep patterns, which in turn can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Nature interventions are multisensory experiences on their own because the sights, sounds, and smells of nature can be beneficial. Additionally, nature experiences can complement traditional therapies and contribute significantly to overall well-being for young adults with autism.
Sensory Play Ideas and Activities
A trained educator or elaborate facility are not necessary to create beneficial sensory experiences for children and young adults with autism. It’s easy to engage in sensory play and activities using simple materials that parents may already have around the house.
The following activities are just a few ideas that should be easy to explore at home and are particularly suited to young children, although they can be beneficial for people of all ages:
- Sensory Bins: Fill containers with materials like rice, dried beans, sand, and water. Add scoops, cups, and toys for exploration. Add to the experience by hiding objects for discovery or using themed bins (e.g., ocean-themed with shells and toy sea creatures).
- Playdough or Clay: Making and playing with homemade playdough or clay offers tactile stimulation. Add scents or textures (like glitter) for extra sensory input.
- Water Play: Fill containers with water, add food coloring, and provide different objects for floating or sinking experiments. Include funnels, cups, and water wheels for added exploration.
- Mess-Free Sensory Bags: Fill plastic zipper bags with hair gel, paint, or different liquids and seal them securely. This allows them to squish, move, and mix the contents without the mess.
- Sensory Walk: Create a sensory pathway using various materials like foam, bubble wrap, fabric, and sandpaper for different textures underfoot.
- Texture Boards: Attach different textured materials like faux fur, sandpaper, and bubble wrap to a board or box lid. Encourage touching and exploring each texture.
- Sensory Bottles or Jars: Fill clear bottles or jars with materials like colored water, glitter, beads, and oil and water mixtures. Securely seal them and allow kids to shake and observe.
- Sensory Sound Exploration: Create musical instruments or shakers using dried beans, rice, or small pebbles in containers like bottles or cans.
Remember to tailor these activities to suit individual preferences and needs.
Examples of Accommodations for Hypersensitivity
Hypersensitivity is common in people with autism. However, hypersensitivity does not mean that sensory play is off the table. With the right accommodation, sensory activities can still be useful and beneficial.
Hypersensitivity can manifest in different ways, so accommodations should be tailored to the individual. Following are some examples of accommodations that could be implemented during sensory activities or in other overstimulating scenarios:
- Auditory Hypersensitivity: Provide noise-canceling headphones or earplugs to reduce environmental sounds. Use visual cues or timers to indicate upcoming loud noises or transitions.
- Tactile Hypersensitivity: Allow the use of specific clothing made from preferred fabrics to avoid discomfort. Provide fidget toys or stress balls to redirect tactile sensitivity and offer a designated space with varied textures (e.g., soft fabrics, smooth surfaces) for comfort.
- Visual Hypersensitivity: Offer tinted glasses or screen filters to reduce glare or brightness. Allow the use of hats or visors to reduce exposure to bright sunlight.
- Gustatory and Olfactory Hypersensitivity: Allow the individual to bring preferred foods or snacks to accommodate taste sensitivities. Provide unscented or hypoallergenic cleaning products in shared spaces and offer odor-free alternatives in the environment (scent-free soap, markers, etc.).
- Proprioceptive and Vestibular Hypersensitivity: Allow flexible seating options (e.g., sitting on an exercise ball or using a standing desk). Provide warnings or alternative options before activities involving intense movement or changes in position.
Sensory experiences at Transitions offer hypersensitivity accommodations that are tailored to the individual’s specific needs and preferences.
Where We Provide Sensory Programs
All Transitions locations provide sensory experiences for students, their families, and the community. Transitions has campuses in Albany, Mayfield, and Cobleskill, New York. For more information, contact us.