Types of Sensory Disabilities and Impairment - Maple Services
Types of Sensory Disabilities and Impairment

Types of Sensory Disabilities and Impairment

A sensory disability is a condition in which one or more of our body’s sensory functions, such as vision, hearing, touch, taste or smell are impaired or do not function as expected. 

Almost everyone has encountered another person with a sensory disability, whether or not they were aware. 

There are four main types of sensory disability that we should all be familiar with. They are Autism Spectrum Disorder, Blindness and Low Vision, Deafness and Loss of Hearing, and Sensory Processing Disorder. Each type of sensory disability has distinct symptoms, but some individuals may experience overlap between them. 

If you or a loved one experience any sensory disabilities or impairment, Maple Community Services is well-equipped to help you manage your disability and find productive solutions that will minimise the impact on your access to and participation in society. 

What is a sensory disability?

A sensory disability is a neurological disorder that affects the human brain’s ability to process sensory information, namely their hearing, vision, taste, smell, or touch. When their senses are affected, a person may lack input from any or multiple senses which create a different experience for them in the world. The disability may not actually cause them impairment, or they may require significant support to fully participate in their lives and access some aspects of society, or most commonly they may lie somewhere in between the two extremes.

Some types of sensory disabilities are more obvious, while others may not be readily apparent because people who live with them may not show any obvious signs that they are dealing with them. Whether or not there are any obvious signs, a person living with a sensory disability may have some level of impairment which can benefit from varying levels of support, including disability respite accommodation and other services from NDIS accommodation providers.

What is Sensory Impairment?

A sensory impairment is when one or more of our body’s sensory functions are impaired. This can lead to challenges in perceiving or processing sensory information. Some examples of sensory impairments include:

Visual impairment:

  • Blindness – complete loss of vision or someone’s inability to see.
  • Partial blindness – low levels of vision including difficulty to see fine details or distinguishing colours.

Hearing impairment:

  • Deafness – someone’s inability to hear sounds or profound hearing loss.
  • Partial deafness – this can range from mild to severe and can affect someone’s ability to hear or understand speech.

Touch impairment:

When someone’s ability to sense touch is impaired it can affect their ability to feel and interpret physical contact or temperature. This is also known as tactile impairment.

Taste impairment:

Impairments in someone’s taste perception can lead to difficulties in detecting, distinguishing, or enjoying different flavours. This is also known as Gustatory impairment.

Smell impairment:

An impaired sense of smell can result in difficulties detecting and interpreting odours, which can affect someone’s ability to recognise scents and potential dangers. This is also known as Olfactory impairment.

What are the characteristics of sensory impairment?

The characteristics of sensory impairment can vary greatly depending on what sense that is affected and at what degree of impairment. Everyone’s level of impairment and their subsequent experiences related to it will be different. However, you may be familiar with some of these common characteristics that people with sensory impairments experience:

  • Challenges with effective communication, especially with hearing or vision loss or someone who is on the Autism Spectrum. Other communication methods such as sign language, braille or assistive devices can often help you with these challenges.
  • Difficulty with mobility and orientation. Lack of vision can affect our ability to move around safely but hearing loss can also have an impact on our mobility. Specialised training or assistive devices can help you to navigate an environment safely.
  • Difficulty accessing information. Loss of hearing or vision or someone living with sensory processing disorder may have difficulty accessing audio or visual information effectively. Adaptive devices, assistive technology or a support worker can be crucial for accessing important information, whether in auditory, written or tactile forms.

What are the different types of sensory disabilities?

As noted, there are four main types of sensory disability and they have distinct symptoms which define and differentiate them, as well as determine the necessary levels of support for any individual who lives with them. They are:

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a developmental disability that can impair an individual’s social, communicative, physical, and behavioural functions. The impairment can be relatively minimal, or it may require significant support on a day to day basis. Common symptoms of ASD include: 

  • Developmental regression, or loss of previously achieved skills or milestones
  • Absence of attention to common objects such as failure to look where you are looking or pointing
  • Abnormal or unexpected reactions to stimuli from their surroundings
  • Abnormal social interactions
  • Absence of smiling when greeted by parents and other familiar people
  • Absence of expected responses to pain or physical injury
  • Language delays or unusual language formulation or structure
  • Repetitive behaviours

These symptoms partially reflect a defect in the brain’s processing of sensory and external information, which characterises the occasionally perceived apathy of patients living with ASD.

Blindness and Low Vision

Blindness and low vision are serious sensory disabilities that may require a person to enlist significant support depending on their individual circumstances. Blindness is characterised by a total loss of vision in one or both eyes, meaning there is no visual input to the brain from the affected eye/s. This is what most people think of when discussing blindness, however there are other possible vision impairments that are sensory disabilities and can significantly affect a person’s life. These include limited visual acuity or low vision, as well as colour blindness or the inability to accurately perceive certain colours. While colour blindness if often congenital or neurological in origin, some common causes of blindness or low vision are:

  • Uncorrected refractive errors
  • Cataract
  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Glaucoma
  • Trachoma

Deafness and Loss of Hearing

Deafness and loss of hearing are also serious sensory disabilities and reflect an impairment in a person’s ability to perceive sounds in either or both ears. There are four main types of hearing loss that reflect the pathways that sound takes to be collected in our ears and interpreted in our brains. They are:

  • Conductive Hearing Loss: An obstruction or obstacle impairing the transmission of sound from the outer ear where it is collected or the middle ear where it is transformed into minute vibrations to the inner ear where it is transmitted as neurological signals to the brain. 
  • Sensorineural Hearing Loss: This occurs when there is a malfunction or damage to the inner ear or hearing nerve once vibrations arrive so that the sounds are not properly transmitted to the brain.
  • Mixed Hearing Loss: This is a combination of conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss where there are aspects of both types present in an individual.
  • Auditory Neuropathy Spectrum Disorder: Similar to sensorineural hearing loss, an auditory neuropathy is specifically caused by damage to the inner ear or hearing nerve so that the signals transmitted to the brain are altered or inappropriate for the given sound input.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD, was formerly referred to as sensory integration dysfunction. SPD is a neurological condition that interferes with a person’s ability to interpret sensory messages from the brain and convert those messages into appropriate movements or behavioural responses. Patients with SPD have trouble filtering out unimportant sensory information like when in crowded places, and can cause them to feel overwhelmed or over-stimulated. Common symptoms of SPD are: 

  • Inability to tolerate bright lights and loud noises 
  • Refusal to wear clothing because of how it feels
  • Distracted by background noises that others don’t notice 
  • Afraid of unexpected touching and avoiding hugs even with familiar adults
  • Overly fearful of swings and playground equipment
  • Have trouble knowing where their body is in relation to other objects or people

Participants can receive tailored support and therapies to address NDIS sensory processing disorder to enable you to better manage sensory challenges

What causes sensory disabilities?

Sensory disabilities have a wide range of causes depending on the specific type of sensory disability. They can be congenital, meaning someone is born with them due to a genetic mutation or maternal illness; or they can be genetic, meaning there is some alteration in genetic material that causes the impairment; or they can be metabolic, meaning a chronic illness or lifestyle-related cause affects someone’s senses; or they can be due to a physical injury which impairs a person’s senses. Whatever the specific cause of a person’s sensory disability, they all share a common factor: impaired neurological function. 

Diagnosis and treatment of Sensory Disabilities

To diagnose and effectively treat a sensory disability you would first seek out a clinical evaluation from your healthcare provider. Specialists such as an ophthalmologist (for vision impairment) or an audiologist (for hearing impairment) can conduct a clinical assessment using various tests, with which they can determine the nature and extent of the sensory impairment.

Treatments for sensory disabilities can vary greatly depending on the underlying cause and severity of the impairment. Medical treatments, assistive devices, therapies, tactile skill learning, sensory training, rehabilitation services, and environment modifications can all be effective treatment options that can lead you on a path to greater independence.

What kind of support do people with sensory disabilities need?

Depending on an individual’s sensory disability and the specific needs that may arise to accommodate it, there are many resources available, including professional support, therapy, and devices that can improve a person’s quality of life. People who live with Autism Spectrum Disorder often benefit from therapy and assistive devices to help them fully participate in society. People who live with blindness or vision loss and deafness or hearing loss may use specialised devices, as well as requiring professional or caregiver support, to increase their access potential. People living with sensory processing disorder often can benefit from therapy and support, though some newer technological advances may also be of benefit to them. 

Whatever your or your loved one’s needs are, Maple Community Services will work with you to identify your priorities and find the right solutions that empower you to achieve the quality of life you desire. We have the expertise and experience that you can count on and can also refer you to any specialists if necessary . We look forward to partnering with you for a healthier future.