From the moment of birth, infants start assimilating information about the world through their experiences of it. The sensory system receives information about the environment. In the very early stages, it is the system that helps the infant develop an understanding of their own body as belonging to them and under their control, an understanding of spaces and places, and an understanding of things and people. These are key concepts that enable a child to control and interact successfully with the world.
Long before we develop adequate motor capacity to move out and explore, vision and hearing give us information about the world beyond our bodies. Through life, these senses continue to give us information about things at a distance, giving us a context within which to understand events in our environment. Vision in particular, has been called the organizing sense, as it gives us an easy way to assign meaning to information coming through other senses by allowing a holistic capture of the objects or scene. The combined impairment of vision and hearing therefore presents a unique learning challenge, causing deep isolation and requiring special strategies to draw the infant out into an understanding of the world and the development of special communication techniques.
Touch is unique in that it gives us the ability to understand substance. Touch includes holding, grasping, feeling and manipulating and is the way infants come to understand that the visual images they see and the sounds they hear are attached to things that have substance.
Touch and vision together gives us a sense of space and direction. Especially in the early years, it is through touch and movement- holding, reaching, crawling, walking and climbing, that we understand distance and start interpreting visual clues that indicate size, direction and distance. With experience, these judgments are made with astonishing accuracy through vision alone.
Touch and vision are also the senses that give us the ability to perceive details, as well as the whole, in things that we come across. With touch, we generally perceive objects from specific to general features, while vision perceives objects from general to specific. The requirement for memory and attention is therefore greater when using touch alone to learn about objects.
Assessment of sensory functioning
Our senses were meant to work together to help us learn-we touch what we see, we look toward sounds heard, we see and taste what we smell-and being able to do so, form a rich understanding of our world. To create appropriate programs for children, we must understand just not the impairment but also the limitations and capacity for learning the remaining senses give the child. We must understand not just individual functioning of senses, but how the child uses the senses together to learn efficiently.
Given below are some areas in which you could build a profile sensory functioning. You can build on it as is appropriate. Those who live and work with the child are usually very good sources of information. Ask them to describe situations that answer some of the questions below and from these descriptions it is possible to get a pattern of child preferences and sensory abilities.
From the medical reports and therapeutic consultations, get the following information:
What is the child’s sensory capacity?
- What can the child see?
- What can the child hear?
- Does the child have any dysfunction of smell or taste?
- Does the child have movement or skin problems that make it hard to use touch?
- Does the child have trouble with sensory integration or sensory reception?
- Is any sensory system at risk for developing impairment or losing function in the future?
Now, observe the child in familiar and unfamiliar environments, with familiar and unfamiliar people, indoors and outdoors and with familiar and unfamiliar toys and activities. Preferred senses may change depending on the situation- for example, they may use hearing to identify people, but touch to identify things. Senses are also typically used together for efficient learning- for example, a child may use vision and touch to locate and identify a fallen toy. The most efficient learning is assured when senses are used easily together and different senses lead when getting different kind of information.
What engages the child’s interest?
- What alerts the child when drowsy or uninterested?
- What attracts and maintains the child’s interest?
- What encourages the child to interact with the environment?
- What distracts the child’s attention?
- What is the sensory feature that the child seeks the most for enjoyment?
What senses does the child prefer to use for learning about things, people and places?
- What is the child’s primary way of learning about the world?
- How does the child search for something?
- How does the child explore something that is new and some place that is new?
- How does the child get information about the environment?
- How well can the child use each sense to direct movement?
- How does a child recognise people?
- How does a child recognise places?
- How does a child recognise things?
- Which senses are used together most efficiently?
- With which senses is the child able to get information and imitate?
What senses does the child use for communication?
- How does the child most effectively receive information on emotion?
- How does the child get the social context of the conversation?
- With what sense/s does the child best understand and learn language?
- How does the child express emotions?
- How does the child best use language?
The sensory profile that emerges will give you an idea of which areas of development needs intervention and helps you set goals for sensory development.