Q & A
Developer of EASe CDs and Video Games
Q. Can you explain Sensory Processing Disorder?
A. Just like all other animals, humans experience the environment through their senses. We hear, see, feel, taste, touch and smell. It can be said in fact, that we LIVE in a world of our sensations and neurological responses.
In a neuro-typical individual, our sensations fall within a range considered “normal”, that allow us to agree with each other regarding our world. We can agree that “red” is red and “blue” is blue, when I cannot experience your red or blue any more than you can experience my red or blue. We can also agree that loud is loud, hot is hot, cold is cold and so on.
What we may not realize is that our “normal” perception is very limited. We can only see a narrow spectrum of electromagnetic radiation and hear a narrow range of acoustic vibrations as “sound”. Our senses of touch, taste and smell are also limited compared to some other species. But because we all agree on the effects of light, sound, touch, taste and smell we can all exist together in the same sensory environment.
However, when a person experiences a brain insult, sensory processing can become aberrant, resulting in hypo (lowered) sensitivity or hyper (increased or un-habituated) sensitivity.
Hypo sensitivity is easy to understand. We become blind or deaf, unable to walk or to feel, taste or smell. These conditions are clearly seen as deficits in an individual. We see the blind person as missing a key way of interfacing with the world and as such, at a disadvantage.
It is hyper-sensitivity that is confusing. Given the fantasy, comic book mystique of the, “super human” individual gifted with bionic hearing or sight, it is hard for the typical person to understand that having hypersensitive hearing or sight, taste, touch or smell might also be a serious disadvantage to an individual. However, that is exactly the case. Light can be blinding, sound deafening, a light touch can feel like a burn, a taste awful, a texture disgusting and a smell obnoxious.
Sensory Processing Disorder is a name given to a wide range of these aberrant sensory responses to the neurological process, which renowned PhD Jean Ayres originally called Sensory Integration.
Q. Do you mainly deal with visual and audio processing?
A. I have been interested in children experiencing auditory hypersensitivity since the early 1980’s, and created the first listening therapy CDs, (Electronic Auditory Stimulation effect or EASe music) in the mid 90’s. I created the first serious video games to attempt to integrate a virtual visual/vestibular environment with auditory stimulation (EASe Games) in 2007.
Q. Can you give an example of how a child with visual or audio processing issues is affected?
A. A child with auditory hypersensitivity will experience an un-habituated response or reflex to noise sources that neuro-typical individuals would have normally habituated (adjusted) to by their age. It is like the child is experiencing a startle reflex over and over and over again. Imagine how difficult life would be (and is for the child) if every time you heard the refrigerator turn on, you startled at the sound. It is an extremely frustrating and exhausting experience.
As a result, some children try to control their environment by overpowering external sources of light or noise with their own, internal stimulation. This results in the familiar self stimulation or “stimming” that we see. This can involve hand waving, hand biting, slapping, screaming and tantrum throwing, in a desperate attempt to block out the dangerous and offensive world of noise, light, touch, taste and smell.
Another way to control the world is to become sensory defensive and shut down. The sensory defensive child appears deaf, or uncommunicative, in their own world at times, and then when they lose control, hyper-responsive at other times. Sometimes it is particular frequencies of light or sounds that trigger the loss of control and the outbursts. This condition is typical in children on the autism spectrum and a conundrum to parents.
Q. What can be done to help children with these issues?
A. This is a question that is deeper than the scope of this interview, so I will just speak about what we at Vision Audio attempt to do for these children.
Since the conditions exampled above are neurological conditions, it is important to access the brain through the senses, and to try to teach the child to learn to habituate to light, sound, touch, taste and smell. Our work lies primarily in the auditory realm, and recently in attempts to help children with balance and proprioceptive issues through the visual/vestibular/auditory triad.
It has been shown through many different university studies, that the brain grows connections between neurons in response to external stimulation. We believe that in the hypersensitive child, the brain has not grown enough appropriate connections to facilitate typical habituation to sensory information, and if old enough, may even have developed the unhealthy defensive responses that I described above, as a coping mechanism.
It is our goal with EASe music, video game and voice therapeutic tools, to expose the child to high intensity stimulus to help the brain grow neurological connections, but do so in short enough durations, to avoid triggering a flight or flight response. In other words, to spoon feed stimulus to the brain without triggering a defensive response. In that way, the in-game environment teaches a child’s brain to cope with real world sensory information.
EASe audio consists of music encoded through a Berard AIT modulation system comprised of a system of filters and detectors. The majority of the time, the music is low pass filtered, resulting in a soft, muted tone. Then randomly, the low pass filter and a second high frequency boost circuit engage together and for a short duration, typically well under 300ms, the sound becomes extremely bright and sharp. Then just as quickly as it came, the sound returns to the original, muted tone. The dynamic range of sounds above 3000hz is in the 90db range, requiring most or all of the dynamic range of a 16 bit 44.1 compact disc playback system and a high quality pair of headphones.
EASe games visuals are deceivingly simple. All of the EASe games are either driving or flying games. This is primarily to create a continuous challenge to a child’s sense of balance and spatial orientation within the game world. The horizon is constantly bouncing up and down and tilting left and right, and the child is required to respond appropriately while controlling the vehicle. This is a virtual vestibular environment. Therapists looking over the shoulder of their patients, report more often than not, feeling a bit dizzy watching the game. This affect is intended. As the child plays the game, their brain is adjusting and responding to and learning from vestibular challenges that will carry over in the real world when they are walking, running and riding in a car.
In addition to the virtual vestibular environment, the EASe game worlds all have some kind of challenge to the child’s visual focus and concentration. This can be in the form of foliage, smoke or clouds flying at the vehicle while the child attempts to concentrate on objects in the far field, like targets or treasures. It can also be in the design of the world itself with lots of colors, shapes, flying balls, ramps and more.
The other reason for the flying and driving games is to make the EASe games FUN! Our products will be most effective when the child willingly participates in their own therapy, so we empower the child by putting them in a vehicle in the game world, that they would have no chance of being able to operate in the real world.
And finally, EASe Funhouse and soon EASe Off Road treasure hunt, include an educational element In the form of a treasure hunt. In these games, the child is presented with a visual list of objects at the top of the screen in a heads up display (HUD). The currently desired object (for example a green apple) is enlarged relative to the others, while a soothing female voice instructs the player to “Find the green apple”. When the player drives around, finds and then tags the green apple, the voice exclaims, “Green apple! You are so good at this!”, while the green apple flies to center screen. If the player tags a purple pyramid instead, the voice says, “That was a purple pyramid. Find the green apple”. In that way the game provides the learning component as a pure gift, and not a test of what the child does or does not know. We do not judge the child, but do provide the child with constant challenges.
All in all, the child has a game to play that is clearly designed just for them, the music is therapeutically soothing to a hypersensitive child, the challenges are surmountable and the results are hopefully positive.
Bill Mueller, President