Modulation: we all do it, but how well?!

This week I decided to finally start my Christmas shopping. As I walked through the shops I couldn’t help but notice that some of the children weren’t coping well with being in the noisy, crowded environment. As an OT, I understand why some children feel so overwhelmed, but I want to help more people realise that it’s not always just a child having a tantrum because they’re grumpy, there can be sensory modulation issues behind the behaviour.

Modulation is an important part of sensory processing, in fact, in order to have good sensory processing, you need to be able to modulate your senses appropriately. Modulation is the brain’s regulation of sensory input. It helps us to regulate our level of attention and concentration by filtering out background distractions, focusing on important sensory information and regulating how much sensory input we are exposed to.

One common analogy for modulation is likening it to the volume control on a radio. We would turn the volume up to enhance important incoming sensory information or turn the volume down to inhibit unimportant incoming sensory information. Let’s take sitting in a classroom for example. A child who can modulate appropriately would be enhancing the sound of the teacher’s instructions, whilst inhibiting the background noise of the airconditioner humming and the groundskeeper mowing outside. Furthermore, the child wouldn’t be paying any attention whatsoever to the feel of the tag on the bag of their shirts or brightness of the fluorescent bulbs. This modulation would all be happening automatically for them, happening on a subconscious level and requiring no effort or attention to occur.Some children may not be able to modulate their senses so efficiently. For some, a little bit of sensory information may actually feel like A LOT. These are the over-sensitive (hypersensitive) children who may be distressed by unpredicatable sounds and noisy surroundings, they may avoid being touched by others or they may fear movement activities such as swings.

On the other end of the scale are the children where a lot feels like A LITTLE. These are the under-sensitive (hyposensitive) children who often seek lots of sensory input (sensory seeking), such as engaging in messy play, seeking lots of movement or mouthing objects. They may not be able to consciously register certain sensory input (low registration), such as someone giving them instructions or tapping them on the shoulder, and may often appear daydreamy and lazy. Children with low registration commonly have difficulties with low muscle tone and poor body awareness.

Children may be under-sensitive for some sensory input, but over-sensitive for other senses (eg. they may love messy play but can’t stand loud noise). These children may have difficulty filtering sensory input, being unable to ignore unimportant sensory information and having difficulty paying attention to the important information. Some children may easily fluctuate from being in the low registration level of arousal to easily over-aroused and dysregulated, having a very narrow band of ‘just right’ arousal.

Difficulties with sensory modulation may often result in social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. It can impact upon academic learning, social interactions and self-esteem.

So the next time you see a child daydreaming at the back of the classroom, or reacting negatively to others standing too close, or becoming easily dysregulated and overwhelmed in a busy shopping centre, then think about the modulation difficulties they may be experiencing- just understanding them is the first step to helping them.

If you think that your child may be experiencing modulation difficulties, you can contact OTFC for an assessment on 8410 4522.


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