I sense it is time..

…to put a few thoughts down on the subject of sensory processing. I’ve been talking to colleagues and to friends and family of all ages about the wearing of masks and the effects this has on people’s interface with the world. For example, I have several friends who are struggling with being able to see as their glasses become steamed up. A colleague told me she had noticed that her balance and spatial awareness seemed to be affected and that when negotiating stairs, escalators or any changing levels, depths and obstacles and routes the face mask added another dimension that made her judgement less accurate. Somebody else said that when involved in transactions with shop staff, often through triple-plus layers of screens, vizors and masks, she couldn’t hear very well.

First, to define terms, sensory processing is what all people and every living creature with any kind of a nervous system does, in order to survive, behave, learn, perform and interact. We are equipped with five main senses: taste, smell, touch, vision and hearing and through these, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we take in information about the environment around us, we process that information and then store and/or use that information. Sensory processing is, as Occupational Therapist, Anna Jean Ayres (1972) is quoted as saying:

“the neurological process that organizes sensation from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment”.

The above is a very simple explanation of what is a complex and much researched subject within the vast literature on neuroscience and sensory integrative theory. Until about two years ago I spent most of my time as a practitioner psychologist offering assessment services to both adults and children. The detailed and individualised assessments I carried out virtually always contained a section in which I found out about the person’s sensory processing profile and to help me do this I administered a standardised test incorporating a self-report questionnaire from the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile (Brown and Dunn, 2002), which allowed me and the person being assessed to gain some insights. This yielded information about the particular ways in which they processed sensory stimuli from the environment, including aspects they were particularly reliant upon and also aspects that suggested weaknesses or difficulties. This test instrument actually explores an additional sensory route, that of movement, i.e. the person’s sense of themselves as an active physical whole in space. This is an important part of our capacity to be safe in the world, especially parts that are new, different and relatively unfamiliar.

I’m sure we are all too aware of the limiting and often unhelpful effects of face masks upon social interactions but at this time of ‘staying safe’ from the threat of the virus, the implications for our usual safety behaviours that help us avoid falling and colliding or a multitude of other accidental happenings, do not seem to have been thought about much. The only exception I have found to this in my searches through the internet have been in advice to parents of children who experience difficulties relating to autistic spectrum disorder. One of the key pieces of advice has been to practice wearing masks at home and to role-play possible scenarios when out and about. This is useful and educative, practical advice for everyone and in an ideal world, the government and our public health services might have considered, along with its many detailed, lengthy and rule-based edicts about the wearing of face masks.

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