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Basics for Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Needs

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Quite a few of our mama readers have reached out lately with concerns for their own child’s sensory needs. We also have some parents wondering how to navigate school observations or recommendations regarding specific sensitivities. Having taught, consulted, and parented children with significant sensory needs, we thought we’d introduce some basic terms and techniques here so you can begin to feel better about supporting your child.

First of all, let’s emphasize the individual nature of sensory needs. No one child or adult has the same profile, nor do any two individuals need the same exact input or soothing techniques.

Here’s a helpful guide to help you get started in understanding and responding to your child’s specific needs. If your child has sensory processing issues, you’ll start hearing these terms quite a lot!

Helpful Definitions 

5 traditional senses: touch (tactile), smell, sound (auditory), sight (visual), taste

Other stimulus modalities: temperature, kinesthetic (proprioception), pain, balance, vibration

Sensation: detecting stimuli in either the environment or our own body

Perception: organizing and interpreting sensory information via the brain and the body’s nervous system

Sometimes, a child detects stimuli coming from the wrong source and can either become over-sensitive or under-sensitive. As well, a child can sense where the input is coming from but might be ill-equipped to properly organize that information. This is what leads to sensory integration problems.

You may have heard of the terms “sensory-avoiding” or “sensory-seeking.”

Avoiding Sensory Input

Sensory-avoidant children may:

  • Avoid specific stimuli
  • Either appear noticeably overactive or demonstrate noticeably low energy levels (lethargic)
  • Show little or no emotion
  • Seem unstable (many highs & lows that appear hard to predict)
  • Use sensory input in nontraditional or even inappropriate ways

Seeking Increased Sensory Input

Sensory-seeking children may:

  • seem intrusive
  • act impulsively
  • appear overactive
  • seem unstable (many highs & lows that appear hard to predict)
  • bump into things or often fall

Typically, treatment for specific sensory needs are called “sensory diets.” An occupational therapist (referred to as an OT) or a physical therapist provides guidelines and training, if needed, for calming a hyper-aroused child or offering stimulation for the hypo-aroused child.

Down-regulating refers to calming a child who is hyper-aroused (in other words, over-stimulated).

Up-regulating refers to ways of alerting a child who is under-aroused (in other words, under-stimulated).

Here are some examples of calming techniques that we’ve found useful!

Sound

If over-aroused to SOUND:

  • soft, soothing music without words
  • noise-cancelling headphones
  • humming
  • retreating to a quiet (or silent) & private area (in a tent, under a table, beneath a blanket) ***this allows time for the child’s brain and body to reorganize his/her nervous system

Touch

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If over-aroused to TOUCH:

  • deep pressure (***light touch can seem over-stimulating, uncomfortable or even painful to some of us)
  • hug squeezes
  • weighted vest
  • wrapping up in a blanket
  • weighted blanket
  • chewing gum
  • swinging
  • warm bath or shower
  • again, retreating to a calm, quiet place to allow time for the child’s nervous system to re-align

Visual

If over-aroused to VISUALS:

  • dimmed lights (***avoid florescent)
  • micro-environments that decrease distractions (***less is more!)
  • wearing sunglasses or tinted glasses
  • again, retreating to a quiet (or silent) & private area to allow time for the child’s brain and body to reorganize his/her nervous system (see a pattern here??)

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If over-aroused to SMELL or TASTE:

  • lavender & vanilla essential oils
  • scented markers, stickers or playdough
  • sensory table
  • water beads
  • chewing flavored gum
  • sucking on hard candy

Alerting Techniques

Here are some examples of alerting techniques if a child is under-stimulated:

  • jumping jacks
  • jump rope
  • repeating rhythmic beats (claps, tapping knees, jumps)
  • sensory table
  • fidgets
  • chewing gum
  • playing with cold water
  • loud or fast, rhythmic music
  • strong smells that will stimulate the system (wild orange essential oil and peppermint are 2 of our favorites!)
  • climbing
  • fast swinging
  • spinning
  • sitting face-to-face with your child, legs spread like a V, feet touching, rowing back and forth holding each other’s hands

We’ll share some pics soon of the sensory tools we use in our home these days! Do your kids or students have any favorites?


We’ve referenced some tools and tricks we’ve used throughout our careers, plus some awesome recommendations from Sensory Smarts: A book for kids with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorders struggling with sensory integration problems, by Kathleen, Paul and Christian Chara (2004), one of our favorite resources written by a family!