I previously wrote about the 7-benefits-of-nature-walks. In which I briefly discussed the natural sensory benefits that nature walks and extensive amount of time outdoors provide. Upon review of that article, I realized a considerable amount of information was missing, and that the natural sensory benefits should be more extensively covered.
I have a close connection with those individuals who are afflicted with sensory processing dysfunction and have since dedicated a tremendous amount of my Continuing Nurse Education requirements towards classes covering this topic. In fact, in this area I choose not to restrict myself by what is required of me just to maintain my RN license. I am rather passionate about SPD, so if there is a CNE regarding autism, aspergers or SPD, I gladly take it. I’ve read several books on this topic and countless evidence-based journal articles.
In a nutshell Sensory Processing Dysfunction is the brains inability and or difficultly with processing sensory stimulation. People with SPD can be hyposensitive, hypersensitive, or both to sensory stimulation.
- Those that are hypersensitive to auditory stimulation may have difficulty with processing certain sounds, often mechanical in nature (i.e. hand dryers, mowers, airplanes).
- Hypersensitive persons may have difficulty with processing certain smells. They may be adversed to certain foods due to taste, texture, and smell, often so particular that they are “brand specific” in what they will eat. Some will only adhere to a “white diet” as in potatoes, bread, cheese pizza, and milk.
- Hypersensitive individuals may be adversed and appear to over react or meltdown due to the texture of various clothing or the seams on clothing, particularly socks.
- They may be particularly opposed to messy hands and will avoid or meltdown depending on their level of sensitivity to having messy hands.
- Overly sensitive to sunlight, strobe lights, and camera flashes are examples of hypersensitivity to visual stimulation, causing strong avoidance or meltdowns.
- Hypersensitive individuals may have issues with vestibular input, and be overly sensitive to motion such as moving elevators, escalators, and merry-go-rounds etc.
- Proprioception is ones awareness of his or own body within the environment. Individuals may often poorly calculate passing through a door way, by tables, or people, bumping them as they go. They can appear to be frightened, anxious, or even meltdown in places with high or cathedral ceilings.
- Hypersensitive individuals process pain differently and are more sensitive to it. What may seem trivial to most causes great pain for these individuals.
- hyposensitive sensory individuals are the opposite often feeling little to no pain except in cases where the pain stimuli is severe.
- Hyposensitive Sensory individuals seek proprioceptive input by pushing, pulling, and lifting objects aka “heavy work.”
- Hyposensitive Sensory individuals seek out visual stimulation.
- For vestibular input hyposensitive sensory individuals may like to spin or enjoy varies types of swings.
- hyposensitive Sensory individuals are basically the opposite of hypersensitive sensory persons. In regards to food, they may seek oral motor input and eat excessively.
- A mixture of both hypo and hypersensitive sensory issues can occur as well. No two persons are alike in their symptoms but often each share many similarities.
If your interested in reading more about SPD, these are my favorite books on this subject:
- Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, Revised Edition
- The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder (The Out-of-Sync Child Series)
- Temple Talks about Autism and Sensory Issues: The World’s Leading Expert on Autism Shares Her Advice and Experiences
Sensory Processing Dysfunction can occur by itself but it commonly occurs as a co-diagnoses with Autism Spectrum Disorders, sometimes ADHD, and Down Syndrome. For those that just have sensory issues, sometimes it is mild enough that these individuals do not need occupational services. Since this is a dysfunction with the brain processing sensory stimulation, if it effects a persons quality of life on a daily basis then occupational therapy is warranted.
A process called neuroplasticity is when “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.”(www.medicinenet.com)
Occupational Therapists specializing in sensory integration therapy work with those afflicted with SPD utilizing exposure therapy. Meaning the constant yet gradual exposure to certain sensory stimuli will assist the brain in reorganizing and forming new healthy neuropathways.
This may look like swinging for so many minutes or repetitions in different kinds of swings. Other examples include crawling through colorful fabric tunnels, jumping in balls pits, pushing, pulling, lifting heavy objects, feeding therapy, auditory listening therapy.
Sadly, the majority of individuals only receive 45 minutes once or twice a week of Sensory Integration Therapy, which isn’t enough. Parents are often expected to continue what is called a sensory diet at home to receive enough sensory exposure.
With the current trend towards excessive technology it is a known fact the majority of children spend more time inside then out. Often engaged with an electronic, be it a video game, TV, IPad, or Phone. Screen time should be limited to less than two hours per day by the AAP, yet the average American child uses at least three hours of screen time per day, equating to 21 hours per week.(medlineplus.gov)
Too much screentime can cause an array of health issues in children.
- Sedentary lifestyle leading to obesity.
- attention deficit
- Poor sleep patterns
Children with autism are particularly vulnerable to the over stimulating effects of TV. What if we replaced 21 hours per week of tv time with time outdoors? How do you think that would effect the brains of this generation?
There is so much to observe in nature. A bluebird making a nest. A swallow swooping to catch a fish fly. A butterfly fluttering through the breeze. Trickling streams, babbling brooks, rushing rivers, one can sit and stare for hours. A deer may come to drink at the rivers edge or a muskrat may wander up from under a log. An army of ants may march by. There is so much visual stimulation in nature. Yet for those that are sensitive, shade from the trees often filters out bright sun rays. Nature can be eye catching but not overly stimulating
Right now with fall here the leaves are cluttering the ground, as it becomes damp the leaves create a soft musky odor. In the spring flowers are blooming giving off fragrant sweet floral smells. Apple tree blossoms are among the sweetest smells. If a child ever has the pleasure of finding a swalllowtail caterpillar in nature, a soft brisk touch to the osmeterium and it omits an unpleasant smell. I think it happens to smell like green jolly ranchers so I am not offended. There are many naturally occurring smells in nature for plenty of sensory exposure.
The tactile sensory opportunities are endless in nature. Running your fingers through the cold rushing waters of the river. Grabbing rocks, mud, and loose sticks in the muck of the riverbed. My children make mudpies and stone soup all while using bare hands. Exploring different textures of leaves on a tree. Feeling the bristling spikes on the outer casing of an American Chestnut. My son once skimmed algae off the top of a pond using his hands, it seemed pretty grotesque to me but he enjoyed it.
How can one possibly engage in this sensory need in nature?
There is a myriad of exposure to natural foods while we are outdoors, the more time you spend outside the more you will see it.
During feeding therapy the SOS approach is typically applied. Which is a system of steps in offering foods. “The SOS Approach focuses on increasing a child’s comfort level by exploring and learning about the different properties of food. The program allows a child to interact with food in a playful, non-stressful way, beginning with the ability to tolerate the food in the room and in front of him/her; then moving on to touching, kissing, and eventually tasting and eating foods.”(sosapproach.com)
How can this be applied in nature? These are some of the foods my children were naturally exposed to while outdoors and they expressed interest in exploring, touching, tasting, and eating.
- black walnuts
- american chestnuts
This experience can be enhanced by taking your treasures home and using them to cook or bake with.
To receive vestibular input children can and will seek this on their own. They can freely spin in an open field of wild flowers until they feel balanced again. Other ways I’ve observed children seeking motion in nature:
- Using their own momentum to swing by the arms of a sturdy oak limb.
- Swing from the rope like branches of a weeping willow.
- Slide down the dirt side of a steep mountain path.
- roll down a grassy hill.
- balance walk across a log down in a river being pressed upon moving water.
- sledding down a freshly snow covered hill.
Recall this is the awareness of ones body within the environment. Open fields can be daunting for those with this issue, perhaps a spinning child is seeking vestibular input to counter this aspect. Other natural ways this sensory need can be developed is squeezing down a path between rock formed walls. Walking down a narrow dirt path through a densely populated forrest. I’ve observed children forming their own tunnels by propping up broken branches against each other than climbing through. Climbing through the thick evergreen branches of various trees. Carefully placing ones body so as not be poked or proded by sticks or pine needles. Pushing, pulling, dragging tree limbs or heavy rocks through the wooded trails. This all brings awareness to ones body in relation to their natural environment.
Those children that struggle in this area seem to struggle the most with mechanical noises. While out in nature the majority of noises are soft and gentle, birds chirping, bees buzzing, the high fidelity sound crickets make. However, if you listen long enough, you can hear the sounds animals make. The chipper chatter of a chipmunk or squirrel. The squawking of a hawk circle it’s prey. The throaty mating call of a Buck.
The noise of a rushing river, a babbling brook, or trickling stream are all ways to naturally expose auditory sensitive children to noise in a non-stressful manner.
I’m not alone in the belief that nature walks serve as natural sensory therapy. Balanced and Barefoot is written by Angela J. Hanscom a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of TimberNook—an award-winning developmental and nature-based program that has gained international popularity. She holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy, and an undergraduate degree in kinesiology (the study of movement) with a concentration in health fitness. You can learn more about her book by clicking the link below.
Now that you have awareness of the positive natural sensory benefits that nature can offer, can you see how children that lack this regular exposure may be affected? In contrast, how the average child spends 21 hours a week in poorly stimulating screen time. It’s no wonder that even children without an autism or adhd diagnosis have just mild sensory issues.
Charlotte Mason, an educational philosopher from the early 1900’s advocated for 4-6 hours of time outdoors a day. By utilizing the natural sensory benefits that nature offers think of the positive neuroplastic changes this could stimulate for children with SPD. Can you imagine the natural sensory benefits this could have on today’s children?
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