Understanding children’s different sensory needs

Every single person has their own unique sensory needs in which they are best able to remain calm and able to concentrate, learn or complete a task. When you are writing a document do you wriggle in your seat? Twirl your hair? Click your pen? Chew gum? Listen to music? Have brighter or lower lighting?  Or prefer silence? All of this allows you to remain in an optimal state of arousal and is responding to your own sensory needs.

To understand sensory needs, it helps to recognise the patterns of sensory processing as outlined in the diagram below.

Children with a Low registration pattern are under-responsive to sensory input and need more input to register it. Children with this pattern may not notice what is going on around them, may miss their name being called, that they have food on their face, how hard they may be squeezing something, and may not know how they got a bruise. A child with this form of sensory processing needs a lot of stimulation but will not seek it out. They require more intense input to respond. Strategies to support children with this pattern include:

  • Encouraging varied movement and movement breaks between tasks
  • Playing upbeat music with varied rhythm
  • Using a more animated voice when communicating
  • Use brighter lighting
  • Highlighting the important information on worksheets
  • Apply touch for a short duration to get the child’s attention e.g. touch your child lightly on the arm before giving an instruction
  • Provide a varied diet with different flavours, smells and textures
  • Use strong smells in the environment e.g. in foods, add essential oils to playdough, use scented textas

Children with a Sensory seeking pattern have a very high need for sensory input and will actively seek it out.  This child may always appear to be moving, looking for opportunities to stimulate a particular sense or multiple senses. For example, a child who is tactile may want to touch everything, may jumps and crash into things a lot to receive deep pressure input, or may mouth objects or chew their shirt. Strategies to support children with this pattern include:

  • Have your child help with chores such as pushing the shopping trolley, gardening, and pushing the washing basket to provide heavy work
  • Provide deep pressure by wrapping tightly in a blanket, rolling a fit ball over your child, having them wear a compression singlet such as a Jet Proof singlet, or using a weighted toy or blanket
  • Have your child lie upside down on the couch
  • Play some movement games such as hopscotch or musical chairs
  • Provide lots of opportunities for messy play
  • Give your child crunchy snacks such as popcorn, carrot sticks, apples

Children with Sensory avoidance do not require much input to become overwhelmed and will display either an emotional and/or behavioural response. When this happens children are responding to sensory input  (e.g. the sound of the hair dryer or other loud noises, the feel of the seams in their socks, the colour or texture of food) as if it is a threat. They then may either have a stress response (cry, startle, meltdown) or will attempt to avoid the stimuli all together to (e.g. cover their ears, refuse to eat certain foods, or take off their socks). Children with a sensory sensitive pattern are also very aware of a lot of sensory information. However, they are more passive in their responses and so may not immediately avoid sensory input. However, over time this can lead to them becoming overwhelmed and can result in emotional responses such as meltdowns, anxiety, and rigidity in routines.  Strategies to assist children who are overly responsive to sensory input include:

  • Preparing your child for loud noises e.g. telling them you are going to turn the blender on and that they may want to play in another room
  • Having headphones, ear muffs, or ear defenders available for times when the child is in a very loud environment and may feel overwhelmed
  • Use dim lighting or coloured light bulbs
  • Set up a small calm space with a tee-pee, cubby, and a few of your favourite calming toys where they  can rest
  • If your child is limited in what they eat, try to make tasting new foods fun – explore the food with all senses and move this away from meal times

Understanding a child’s sensory needs and being aware of what is in the environment and how you can adjust the environment accordingly can help them to manage their arousal, remain calm, and best be able to engage.

Brittany Elkins, Leor Occupational Therapist

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