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Child development: Making sense of our senses

DOES your baby cry all the time and become rigid when you pick them up? Will your toddler fl at-out refuse to wear certain clothes and is the ensuing meltdown just not worth the fight? Has your teenager become withdrawn or are they unable, or unwilling, to participate in sports?

A ' yes' response to any of these questions could reflect nothing more than individual preferences or may be worthy of further exploration into the fascinating field of sensory defensiveness.

Interest in the sensory system has exploded in the field of occupational therapy since Dr Jean Ayres developed her theory called 'sensory integration disorder' in the Sixties.

Since then, numerous sub-types and classifications have been added but, while there is passionate support from both parents and therapists, empirical research has yet to definitively prove the existence of sensory disorders, let alone the efficacy of treatment.

It is hoped that rigorous research will soon validate parents' and therapists' hands-on experiences.

Recently I signed up for the first threeday course ever delivered here by the ' mother' of sensory defensiveness Patricia Wilbarger.

The 77-year-old dynamo had travelled from California, and remains as enthusiastic today as she was 40 years ago when she developed her ' therapressure' protocols.

Our in-built alarm system

Our senses ( touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell, movement) function as the body's in-built alarm system, alerting us at all times to the world around us.

When it's working well, this system is like a house alarm that only goes off when there's an intruder and switches off again within minutes.

If the system is disordered it repeatedly goes off, for no apparent reason, and continues for hours. But the thing is, our body's alarm system is far more powerful than Eircom PhoneWatch.

It activates the nervous system for fight or flight or to pass out.

This is a great thing when we're faced with a grizzly bear – allowing us to run like the wind, leap 20 feet into a tree, or faint – but this survival mechanism is not meant to be activated when a baby is picked up, a toddler wears wool, a teenager is in a noisy classroom, or when we have to have to eat porridge to be polite.

Sensory defensiveness

When we have a ' grizzly bear' response to wool, porridge or people, we can be described as being sensory defensive. In other words, there is a mismatch between our alarm system and the potential threat.

Activating the nervous system is serious business, affecting your heart rate, lung muscle, bladder, stomach, kidneys, liver, and intestines, along with the release of stress hormones.

As a result, life becomes extremely difficult, with extreme levels of anxiety, distress and often depression. Secondary issues can include distractibility, sleep difficulties, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, gastric problems and we can start withdrawing and avoiding just to cope with the sensory overload.

New mothers often suffer from sensory defensiveness due to sleep deprivation.

Maybe if they were treated appropriately, they would experience less tearfulness, irritability and feel less overwhelmed and unable to cope. In fact, some sensory advocates say it could help prevent postnatal depression from developing.

The cause of sensory defensiveness is unknown but genetic, familial patterns and early environments appear to play a pivotal role.

It doesn't seem too great a leap to presume that a mother experiencing sensory defensiveness might parent differently to a mother feeling calm and relaxed. Addressing these issues could potentially be of great benefi t to babies who, in turn, are prevented from becoming sensory defensive.

The great news is if a number of these symptoms are present, you are not weird or anti-social. Your child is not a brat and you are not a terrible parent. Best of all, the treatment (which does require commitment as it has to be done every two hours for two minutes) is very successful.

Wilbarger is certain that her therapressure protocol has saved lives and while it's not complicated, it does require hands-on training to perfect.

If you have concerns about yourself or your kids, a great place to start is with the inspiring charity Sensational Kids, which was responsible for bringing Wilbarger to Ireland.

The charity, set up by parents and based in Kildare, is a fantastic resource, providing affordable therapy, an online shop, retail shop and exceptional training for parents and professionals. Contact Sensational Kids on 045 520 900 or call www.sensationalkids.ie.

Niamh Morrin is a senior occupational therapist, life and business coach and an advanced EFT practitioner

Mother & Babies