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We Need to Know About ALL the Senses to Better Help Children with Different Abilities

Updated: Apr 7

By Karen Kaplan

One of the positives about research is that it is ongoing and always coming up with new information to help us understand how we learn and can help others learn.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, MD Neurosurgeon, in his book Keep Sharp….How To Build A Better Brain At Any Age cites some myths about how the brain works. Myth # 11 states, "You only have five senses that are processed in the brain" (sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing). I knew there were at least seven (adding interoception and proprioception), so I knew it was a myth. However, I did not realize there were 11 senses (adding equilibrioception, nociception, thermoreception, and chronoception).

I have met many people in the exceptional needs world who did not know about interoception and proprioception, so I imagine very few teachers and parents know about the additional four.

If we are going to help children who learn differently, we need to know about all the senses and how they affect our lives so we can teach them. Our senses provide information that informs us, protects us, and helps us problem-solve and move through our daily lives. Here is a quick breakdown:

  • Interoception is our sense telling us of our internal needs like thirst, hunger, or the need to go to the bathroom

  • Proprioception is the sense that informs us about where our body parts are and what they are doing

  • Equilibrioception is the sense of balance, telling us if we are sitting, standing, or lying down

  • ·Nociception is the sense of pain.

  • Thermoreception is our sense of temperature

  • Chronoception is our sense of time passing

We have learned that those who live on the autism spectrum are often overwhelmed by senses or underwhelmed. We are led to believe that people can be challenged when it comes to organizing what is coming in through their senses. So, if their senses are not providing accurate information and they do not understand what they are seeing or feeling within themselves or around themselves, how can they positively interact with their world and those in it?

How can we help people understand what hunger feels like? How can we help them identify feelings of fear and then use strategies to calm them? How do we help them understand time passing if they cannot feel it? Could they see it? The Time Timer helps with this one. If they do not feel thirsty, do we not need to explain to them how important it is to keep hydrated and help them build a routine for drinking water? How do we help them understand what can cause pain so they do not injure themselves by putting their hand on a hot stove, climbing on unsafe equipment, or putting their fingers in electrical outlets? How do we toilet-train them if they cannot feel the need to use the bathroom? Our responsibility is to encourage parents to work with a team of therapists and professionals to identify positive strategies to address these sensory differences and needs.

I believe parents, teachers, and therapists need to help people understand their senses and how they can provide information, leading them to make effective decisions, solve problems, and care for themselves.

Parents need to ask physical or occupational therapists or psychologists to evaluate how their individual is doing in all 11 sensory systems. Then, they might ensure goals are written on their individual education plan (IEP) to address the affected systems.

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Karen Kaplan, MS, is a native San Franciscan. She completed her bachelor's and master's degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, in Speech Pathology and Audiology. She minored in Special Education and obtained her Speech Therapist and Special Education credentials in California. Karen worked as a speech therapist for both public schools and private schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism spectrum disorders. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 additional years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges. Karan founded a small non-profit, Offerings, which travels globally helping other cultures understand those with developmental challenges. For seven years, she founded and facilitated an autism lecture series and resource fair in Northern California. Karen still facilitates an Autism Awesomeness event yearly, showcasing the strengths and talents of those who live on the spectrum. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. She has published articles to help bring ideas and strategies to families and professionals, providing hope. Karen authored Reach Me Teach Me in the early 70s and went on to publish her second book, On the Yellow Brick Road Finding Hope for Autism, in 2017. Her third book, Typing to Heaven and Back, is not about autism but about having important conversations with those we love. Be sure to connect with Karen—she is always ready to listen and think of the possibilities.

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