The Functional Four: Sensory Secrets about the Senses You Did Know About

Know the Functional Senses: How to recognize & regulate these four senses with activities for healthy bodies and brains. 


We thought it was important to inform parents and educators that we have EIGHT senses, not five, and three are ones you likely have never heard about! Many of us are taught the Functional FIVE senses in school: Seeing, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch. What we are missing are the Foundational senses of Vestibular, Proprioceptive, and Interoception. These three are of particular importance as they help our bodies know we are safe and secure in our internal state of just being.


Our sensory systems are complicated and no one's the same! The 8 senses work together to support their integration and to ensure our survival in this world. Some have more protective factors while others enhance each other. Our goal is to help you know each sense in more depth so that you may see behaviors as a result of sensory dysfunctions and “neuron traffic jams” versus conscious choices of children. When you can respond to a child struggling from this “body before brain” lens, you can feel more confident in having success in managing the behaviors and guiding a child towards healthy behavioral interventions that actually calm their bodies and decrease stress for everyone.


It is important to know that for every sense, we can be under or over-responsive to any of our 8 senses in reception, detection, modulation, and integration, and when we are, this often causes challenges to how we interact with the world around us. For example, we may avoid certain activities and/or be thrill-seeking in others! Check out our previous blog where we break down the Foundational FOUR here.


In this article, we will break down and discuss the Functional Four. While the Foundational Four tend to provide our sensory system with our internal signals, our Functional Four tend to receive external signals from our world to provide our brains with a “whole body” picture to make sure we are safe inside and out. The Functional Four are the senses everyone knows most about because we learn them at school and we will discuss how they function and how to ensure you are “working” your senses to foster healthy integration by having a variety of sensorial experiences. 


The Functional Four senses include Smell (Olfactory), Taste/Oral (Gustatory), Sight (Visual), and Hearing (Auditory). When these four are not working just right, we and those around us notice! Often this can look like avoidance of certain foods and smells, not following directions well, or becoming easily distracted by bright lights and colors, among other signs. Not understanding these senses and the quirks that come along with them places humans at a disadvantage. For example, when parents and educators don’t understand how a child’s perception of their senses are affecting them, they may not see the challenges coming and find themselves feeling like “nothing is working.” 


Our sensory systems are complicated and no one's the same! The 8 senses work together to support their integration and to ensure our survival in this world. Some have more protective factors while others enhance each other. Our goal is to help you know each sense in more depth so that you may see behaviors as a result of sensory dysfunctions and “neuron traffic jams” versus conscious choices of children. When you can respond to a child struggling from this “body before brain” lens, you can feel more confident in having success in managing the behaviors and guiding a child towards healthy behavioral interventions that actually calm their bodies and decrease stress for everyone. 


Olfactory/ Smell: Allows the body to experience odors that come through our nostrils. Our sense of smell can alert us with odors of danger, pleasure, and disgust. 

What to do to engage the Olfactory/Smell sense:

  • Smell flowers, be in nature!

  • Use scented lotion/oils

  • Explore sour/spicy smells

  • Try new foods

  • Use scratch and sniff stickers

  • Use a lavender pillow

  • Use scented markers

  • Atomize scent into a room or at bedtime

An Infographic on Olfactory/Smell sense here


Gustatory/Oral: Informs the body of different tastes, textures, and flavors that contact our mouth. It also involves the sucking reflex that children often explore at a young age.

What to do to engage the Gustatory/Oral sense:

  • Suck on a popsicle or sucker

  • Try a new food

  • Use chewing gum/Hi Chews

  • Give a child an edible necklace or bracelet

  • Use therapeutic chew toys- necklaces/pencils/baby teethers (cold or room temp)

  • Try spicy or sour foods

  • Play a taste testing game! Put on a blindfold and try to guess what you are tasting. 

  • Mindfully explore a bite of food: notice the temperature, texture, taste, and how the texture/taste changes as you chew

An Infographic on Gustatory/Oral here


Visual/Sight: Gives the body the ability to see things like lights, colors, people, and objects. 

What to do to engage the Visual/Sight sense:

  • Play flashlight tag

  • Look at bright colored objects

  • Go outside on a sunny day

  • Organize blocks by color and shape

  • Use picture cards and practice identifying words and images

  • Read a book to your child at bedtime

  • Have lights on or off (preference)

  • Play with color-changing lights: notice what colors make you feel calm versus energized

  • Play a game of “I Spy”

An Infographic on Visual/Sight here


Auditory/Hearing: Informs our body of different sounds through our ears and gives us the ability to distinguish between a car horn and our mother’s voice. This sense is highly protective of your body. 

What to do to engage the Auditory/Hearing sense:

  • Play freeze dance! Have a dance party and once the music stops, freeze!

  • Listen to different styles of music- with and without lyrics

  • Play your own music, you can even make music with household items- drums, rainstick, whistles

  • Play listening games like Simon Says or Red Light/Green Light 

  • Play a game of guess what sound you are hearing

  • Allow noise canceling headphones in noisy places

An Infographic on Auditory/Hearing here


It is important to note that children and adults are often demonstrating behavioral, emotional, and self-esteem challenges due to sensory sensitivities of their functional four senses. When our senses are out of sync we are not able to engage our brains(executive functioning) fully. In children, this is extremely important to understand because they likely can not verbally inform you they are feeling overwhelmed or under-stimulated (many adults cannot) so learning about the senses allows everyone to have a clearer picture of how to make things easier for the child and adult.


Understanding the connection between the body and the brain enables professionals to assist with the appropriate interventions. Unfortunately, not all professionals are aware of sensory sensitivities and how these present and impact a person's overall functioning. Seeking out licensed professionals who understand sensory sensitivities can assist parents and individuals in receiving the correct referrals for effective treatment. Don’t be afraid to ask in your search if the professional understands sensory sensitivities and to keep searching for someone that does.


Our goal is to continue to foster education in sensory processing and sensory functioning because 1 in 5 humans have sensory sensitivities that impact their daily lives! 


One of the most common statements made by parents is “nothing works, I have tried all the behavioral plans, rewards and punishments, NOTHING works!” 


The answer may be your child is struggling with sensory sensitivities and needs specific intervention plans to be successful in integrating more consistently so you both can have less stress and a more positive relationship. If you feel that your child’s sensory sensitivities are hindering their ability to fully experience the world around them, then your child may benefit from an evaluation by an Occupational Therapist to address these concerns. Occupational Therapy (OT) can provide wonderful support to the family system, not only in addressing sensory challenges but in helping your child (and family) develop life skills. When looking for an OT in your area, you want to look for one that works with Pediatrics and/or specializes in Sensory Processing Challenges (SPD). Not all OT’s are trained in sensory processing challenges, and some OT’s have age limits/requirements! Do not be afraid to ask questions. Just as you would want to find the right fit for your child in counseling, it is to your benefit to do some research before selecting an Occupational Therapist for your child. You can find more information about sensory processing challenges and find the names of providers in your area at The STAR Institute, as well as teaching hospitals in your area may have specialists for sensory processing evaluations. 


At Olympia Therapy we know the frustration many parents experience and feel. The therapists at Olympia Therapy have had intensive training in Sensory Processing because of our Director, Cary Hamilton’s own personal experience. Cary has been passionate about educating mental health professionals in looking at a child’s behavior from a “body before brain” lens. She has trained hundreds of professionals counselors and educators on sensory sensitivities and using the “body before brain” lens with regulation strategies for behavior management that support and grow a child’s attachment and connection to the grown-ups around them.


We hear about all the parenting strategies not working! We have found that many times it is these sensory sensitivities that are not being addressed sufficiently. We are hoping that through education and compassionate support, parents/educators can get the stress relief they are seeking, knowing that you are finally getting to the root of, what can be, significant behavioral and emotional conflict and strain in the home and at school.


All families deserve to experience a more peaceful, confident, and safe relationship.

If you, parent, are looking for more information on this topic, we highly recommend the following books:

The Out Of Sync Child purchase here

Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals purchase here

Positively Sensory! purchase here

No longer a Secret Unique common sense strategies for children with sensory or motor challenges purchase here


For those local or not to Olympia, WA we offer an online parenting program, Playful Wisdom, that educates and supports a child's whole body wellness; applying sensory, play, neuroscience and child-parent relational sciences in webinar form. You can learn how to support the emotional and mental health of your child and family at your own pace, in the comfort of your own home, and receive support if you wish in our private Facebook group. You can learn more about it here at Playful Wisdom Parenting.


Parenting is hard and messy as it is! Understanding the impact of the Eight senses is often the missing link to your parenting strategy and we are here to help.


Cary Hamilton


1534 Bishop RD SW

Tumwater, WA 98512

 

Call Us:                Fax Us:

360-357-2370       360-357-2374

 324 S Main St Suite B, Montesano, WA 98563

 

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