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Sensory Processing Resources

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"The experience of being human is embedded in the sensory events of everyday life" (Winnie Dunn, 2001)

We are all sensory beings. Although we may not always be fully aware of it, sensations are everywhere, and sounds, sights, touch, taste, smells, movement, and internal senses impact everything we do. We experience the world in part through our senses. Everyone has a unique sensory system and ways of perceiving and processing sensation.

Please click on the headings below to find out more about sensory processing, how this applies to college, and for some tips from other students and from the Disability Service Occupational Therapists on managing the sensory environment in college.

Please contact us at askds@tcd.ie for further information or to discuss any of these resources.

What is Sensory Processing?

Sensory processing is the means by which individuals obtain information about the world and their own bodies (Brown, Steffen-Sanchez, Nicholson, 2019) and includes the mechanisms of how sensory information is processed and used together with what we already know about the world to create our perception.

Each of us has an individualised pattern of sensory processing (Dunn, 2007), with our own sensory preferences and different thresholds for how much sensory information we like, how much influence sensory information has on our perception, and that enables us to engage in our day to day lives. For some individuals, sensory stimuli have a much more significant influence on their perception than others, making for a notably different experience of the world compared to other people whose perception is not as influenced by sensory stimuli. We all have different sensory needs that can change depending on energy levels, mood, context and mechanism of perception.

Dunn's Model of Sensory Processing (1997)

Dunn’s Model of Sensory Processing, (1997), created by Winnie Dunn, provides a theoretical framework to help us understand how people respond to sensory stimuli. It describes neurological thresholds along a continuum from low to high, and behavioural self-regulation responses from passive to active, and is composed of four quadrants (low registration, sensation seeking, sensory sensitivity and sensation avoiding).

Some people have a high neurological threshold and need lots of stimuli before they become aware of certain sensations. Others experience a low sensory threshold and will be aware of and react very quickly to certain sensations. While others have varying neurological thresholds across their different sensory systems. For example, they may have a high threshold for olfactory and tactile sensations but a low threshold for visual and auditory sensations.

Sometimes we crave activity and movement, louder music and bright lights and colours. At other times, we might feel extra sensitive and prefer quieter spaces with dim lighting and less going on. While at other time we might need a balance of less of some sensation and more of others, we might avoid visual input by blocking out the lights and wearing sunglasses. Still, at the same time, we might seek more auditory input and have our headphones on with loud music we can control.

Sensory Processing and College

"As someone who is easily affected by sensory stimuli, I find focusing on college work really challenging. I’m extremely affected by noise and it really stresses me out."

Trinity Student

Life in college is full of different sensory experiences. We all have different sensory preferences which can shape the things we do in college, the places we go, and how we feel.

Lecture Hall

Research undertaken within Trinity’s Discipline of Occupational Therapy, found that students can experience a range of issues in managing the sensory environments of college and this can make it difficult to engage in the academic and social elements of college life (Clince, Connolly & Nolan, 2016).

In May 2019, 150 students registered with the Disability Service in TCD completed a survey on sensory experiences in learning spaces in college.

  • 68% reported that there is no quiet space on campus that they can access easily if feeling overwhelmed.
  • Over 50% commented that they go home/leave campus if feeling overwhelmed.
  • 93% would use a quiet space if it was available in the library.
  • 49% reported difficulty with acoustics (e.g. noises, echoes, humming) in the library.
  • 41% reported difficulty with acoustics in lectures.

As outlined above, some students can find college overwhelming which can prevent them from fully engaging in their daily tasks (Johnson & Irving, 2008). As one Trinity graduate described:

“I will say that I mostly stayed away from campus, as even the short commute there sometimes overwhelmed me.”

However, sensory preferences can be complex, with students often looking for certain types sensory stimuli as illustrated in the student comments below:

Noise infographic

Trinity Sensory Processing Project

We have identified making Trinity a more inclusive place from a sensory perspective as a key aim in our Strategic Plan for 2020-2025.  This work started in the academic year 2018/19, when we carried out a series of audits of the libraries and laboratories within Trinity. Detailed findings of these suits are outlined in Auditing Learning Environments from a sensory perspective.  These finding led to us establishing the Trinity Sensory Processing Project, which is being funded as a Higher Education Authority Strategic Initiatives in 2021. The project has three main aims:

  1. To enable students with sensory processing issues to more fully participate in student life.
  2. To develop inclusive venues on the college campus from a sensory perspective
  3. To conduct research into the experiences of college students with sensory processing issues and to underpin developments throughout project

To meet these aims, activities are taking place across four strands:

  1. Student Approaches with the Disability Service
  2. The College Environment
  3. Staff Awareness and Training
  4. Research

We are continuing to review libraries, labs, lecture halls and other areas to develop more flexible spaces to allow students to suit their own sensory preferences. As part of this we are also developing training resources for staff on sensory processing to better enable them to facilitate student’s learning and engagement. We are looking for students to be part of this, so if you would like to be involved, please contact Kieran at klewis@tcd.ie.

For more information and updates on specific activities, please visit our Sensory Processing Project webpage.

Tips for Managing Online Sensory Environments

As many of us are studying and working online at present, we have prepared some tips in managing this sensory environment.

Tips to reduce anxiety and sensory overload before going online.

  • Set up a space where you can comfortably do your work. If you need any seating supports, have these ready before the start of your online class.
  • Have ready any sensory items you may want to use during an online class. (Deep pressure, weighted aids, fidget toys, stress ball, sunglasses)
  • Before an online class, test your microphone and speaker settings and adjust to a level you are comfortable with.
  • If you feel hypersensitive to visual input, you could adjust the brightness of your screen or change to a night filter to reduce visual input or use a blue light filter.

Video Interactions

Video interactions can require additional sensory processing. At in-person meetings and classes, there is only one environment to process. On online video calls and tutorials, you manage the sensory inputs in both your own physical environment and in others. Below are some tips on how to reduce the impact of managing multiple sensory environments.

  • You can make your own environment more calming by using low lighting to reduce visual stimuli or setting up a study space in an area where you can get lots of natural lighting.
  • Create a comfortable place to sit or stand in an area that limits background distractions so that you can maximise focus.

Managing ‘Zoom Fatigue’

In their research into zoom fatigue, Bailenson (2021) found several factors of online interaction that can cause exhaustion. Please see some tips below on managing this.

  • Research has shown that movement helps to improve cognitive functioning. In-person conversations or on the phone, we tend to move around while interacting. Online can feel restrictive. Often the camera is in a set place, meaning that we have to stay in the same position. In an age where everyone is adjusting to online communication, much emphasis has been put on looking good on screen, which often involves holding unnatural poses that limit movement for long periods.
  • Are you feeling crowded online or like your personal space is being invaded?
    • You can increase your personal space and create a space to move in by working with wireless headphones or a wireless keyboard that allow you to be further away from the screen but still be heard and still be able to type.
  • Seeing our own face stare back at us during video meetings can be exhausting as it can increase the feeling that we are being watched and need to perform. If we were to constantly carry a mirror around with us in in-person interactions as we do in online video interactions, it would be odd. Studies have shown that this constant view of yourself can be a source of tension, as when we see ourselves, we tend to be more self-critical.
    • To reduce this stress, you can set your setting to hide self-view in video calls.
  • Find there is just too much eye contact?
    • Try looking away every now and again, reduce the overall window size you see the video on to decrease intensity.

Tips for Managing the Sensory Environment in College

Some of us are studying on campus at present, while others are starting to think about what the return to campus will be like.  Students and Occupational Therapists have come up with some tips for managing the sensory environment within Trinity.

Tips from Students

  • “There are some lovely quiet spots on campus- the respite room, corners of the various libraries, nooks in upstairs hallways in the arts building, the foyer of the museum building. Identify a few good spots where you can retreat and get a break, so if you arrive at one and it's in use/not actually that quiet, you have some backup possibilities. Also: don't be afraid to advocate for what you need.” 
  • “The Disability Service provided me with noise cancelling headphones which have made my life so much easier. In fact, I wear them almost 24/7, they have been life changing. I live on a busy road and since I am mainly studying from home due to Covid it has really helped me to feel calm as the headphones block out all noise, I used to get really irritated and upset before I had them.”
  • “Be kind to yourself, and if you find noisy or busy areas challenging then avoid going during peak hours. My guess is you already know what works for you, so don’t feel you have to follow the crowd if it is unbearable.”
  • “I find silicone earplugs are the best, I use them every night!”
  • “One thing I wish I'd known about sooner is the quiet space of the small chapel, which became a refuge for me when I did go to campus. It is incredible how quiet it could be in there given the activities on campus.”
  • “For study, I sometimes could work well on the 5th floor of the Ussher library, or a big empty table in the Buttery.”

Tips from the Disability Service Occupational Therapists

  • Get to know yourself. What are your sensory preferences? Where do you work best?  We can help you with this, please contact us to find out more.
  • Be aware of your environments. Where do you work most? What kind of sensory stimuli are in this environment? How strong is this stimulus? Is it familiar, repetitive or unpredictable? Is there more than one stimulus that you have to manage?
  • Where possible – find / create spaces that suit your sensory preferences.
  • Be aware of what you are doing.  Are these activities calming or alerting? How do your sensory preferences impact what you do?
  • Schedule Sensory time. Give yourself what you need. Whether it is a quiet space, some time outside in nature, a walk or some other exercise, or a few minutes in low level lighting, make sure to give yourself some sensory time regularly in your day.
  • There are lots of individualised supports and resources to enable you to participate in your student life.
    • Occupational Therapy supports: Specialist sensory assessment and intervention to enable you to understand your sensory processing in relation to your role in college and develop strategies to manage the college environment.
    • Individual Sensory Spaces: There are three respite rooms across campus which are bookable to use to manage your sensory systems. We are currently developing these further to become flexible individual sensory spaces.
    • Examination supports: Low distraction examination or individual venues can be recommended from your needs assessment, and you can work with us on developing sensory strategies for exams such as lighting set up, using noise cancelling headsets or taking sensory breaks.
    • Sensory study spaces: We are currently working with the TCD Library to develop a flexible array of study spaces to suit your sensory preferences when studying. These include individual study rooms, quiet study areas, areas with low levels of light or other with natural light, high back acoustic seating, and individual study pods to reduce visual stimuli and provide an enclosed study space.
    • Reasonable Accommodations within learning environments: Based upon your Needs Assessment / Occupational Therapy assessment additional accommodation may be recommended for learning environments such as lectures, labs or placement.
    • Noise Cancelling Headphones: As part of Occupational Therapy process the use of noise cancelling headphones may be recommended for on-going use in college.  Headphones will also be provided directly from the library when restrictions allow.

References

  • Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal overload: A theoretical argument for the causes of Zoom fatigue. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2(1).
  • Brown, C., Steffen-Sanchez,P., & Nicholson, R. (2019). ‘Sensory Processing’, in Brown, C., Stoffel, V. & Munoz, J. (ed.) Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, A Vision for Participation. Philadelphia, David, pp.323-341.
  • Clince, M., Connolly, L. & Nolan, C. (2016). Comparing and Exploring the Sensory Processing Patterns of Higher Education Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder. American Journal Occupational Therapy, 70(2).
  • Dunn, W. (1997). The Impact of Sensory Processing Abilities on the Daily Lives of Young Children and Their Families: A Conceptual Model, Infants & Young Children, 9 (4) - p 23-35.
  • Dunn, W. (2001). The sensations of everyday life:  Empirical, theoretical and pragmatic considerations (Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lecture, 2001). American Journal of Occupational Therapy.  55(6); 608-620.
  • Johnson, M. E., & Irving, R. (2008). "Implications of sensory defensiveness in a college population." The American Occupational Therapy Association Sensory Integration Special Interest Section Quarterly, 31(2), 1–3.