Updated: Mar 24
Creating Safer Events and Spaces for Neurodivergent Dancers Series:
Part 1 - The 8 Senses
Part 1 - The 8 Senses
As a neurodivergent dancer I am working to foster more inclusive partner dance communities. In service of that goal, I am sharing some of what I’ve learned on this journey of discovery and understanding. My journey became a trial by fire when I had two amazing neurodivergent children with intense sensory needs. The profound shift in perspective I experienced to discover their behavior was stemming from underlying neurological sensory needs changed everything. By sharing this perspective shift with you, I’m offering one important element needed to build more inclusive spaces for neurodivergent dancers: Understanding how our senses interpret the world around us, how our sensory experience affects our felt sense of safety, and our availability to connect.
Most of us are taught the five senses in elementary school: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. But we actually have eight! The three additional senses (which are especially relevant to dancers) are the vestibular, proprioceptive, and interoceptive senses. The vestibular system governs the body’s balance and orientation in space. The proprioceptive sense tells us where our muscles and joints are in relation to each other, and the amount of energy needed to move them. Interoception is the internal sensation of the automatic processes happening in our bodies, such as breathing, thirst, hunger, elimination, and circadian rhythm.
We, as human beings, interact with and learn about ourselves and the environment through our senses. Much of our sense of safety is controlled by our nervous and sensory systems. Our brains and bodies gather information through sensory experiences of our external world. This information is then translated into a felt sense of how safe we are in our environment. When sensory input is neutral or pleasant, our nervous systems can settle into a felt sense of safety. When one has a felt sense of safety, connection and social emotional regulation is more available. Because each person’s sensory system receives and interprets information differently, what is perceived as neutral or pleasant will differ from person to person.
All eight senses can also vary on a spectrum of sensitivity and reactivity. Sensory processing differences will fluctuate depending on which senses are affected and on the intensity of those sensations. These variable sensory experiences may be completely invisible, or they have an observable effect on a neurodivergent person’s behavior.
Several studies have shown that autistic people have more attuned sensory systems, which pick up and process more sensory information than others. (Two of these studies are available here and here, and the findings of several of these studies are summarized here.) Many neurodivergent people with highly attuned sensory systems often have strong self-protective responses (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) to everyday sensations. Sensory experiences can be unique and include more or less intensity, differing pain or pleasure levels, advanced or delayed processing, and blended signals depending on how the nervous system is structured.