Sensory processing for taste, also known as oral sensation processing, is the way that our brain processes information from our mouth and taste buds. Some children are hyposensitive to taste and oral input and need extra stimulation in their mouth and to attend to tastes, textures, and quantity of food. On the contrary, some children are hypersensitive to taste and oral stimulation and become overwhelmed by sensations in the mouth, tastes, textures, smells, and objects. A person’s sense of smell is closely connected to taste. When a person smells something, it can cause a reaction in their mouth such as watering or cause a negative reaction such as nausea.
There are four patterns of sensory processing: low registration, sensation seeking, sensory sensitive and sensation avoiding.
Low registration: A child with low registration does not recognize or process all of the incoming sensory information, and they do not compensate by trying to gain more sensory input to meet their needs. They may seem uninterested, and inattentive to their surroundings.
Sensation seeking: A child classified as sensation seeking does not recognize or process all of the incoming sensory information, but contrary to low registration, they actively try to gain this sensory input to meet their needs. They may be hyperactive, touch others often or engage in unsafe activities like jumping from heights.
Sensory sensitive: A child classified as sensory sensitive feels overwhelmed by sensory information, but they do not actively try to avoid the overstimulation, instead they may just display frustration. They may be easily distracted, and irritable, cautious, and uncomfortable in loud or bright environments.
Sensation avoiding: A child that is sensation avoiding feels overwhelmed by sensory information and will actively avoid the stimulation. They may run away from loud, busy environments, cover their ears when overstimulated by noise, or wear gloves to avoid touching certain materials such as paint.
A child who has low registration or is sensation seeking may require extra oral input in order to process tastes, textures, quantity of food and the environment (e.g., food utensils, straws).
If a child has a low registration pattern for oral sensory processing they may:
- Have poor awareness of the temperature or amount of food.
- Drool frequently.
- Spill food or liquid from their mouth while eating or drinking.
If a child has a sensation seeking pattern for oral sensory processing they may:
- Explore objects with their mouth, such as toys, books, sand, and clothes.
- Crave certain foods, tastes, or smells.
- Bite their tongue or lips more often than other children.
Jackson is a 4-year-old boy. You are concerned that Jackson is constantly biting his lips and inner cheek throughout the day. You notice that he often places non-food objects in his mouth, such as toys and clothes. He also gets into trouble in class for biting the other children, although this does not occur when he is angry or frustrated.
Based on this information you can see that Jackson is presenting with sensation seeking for oral input. He needs a large amount of oral stimulation and seeks it out by biting his cheek and other objects.
For a child who has difficulty noticing or processing oral information, you can try to provide the child with foods or items that can provide extra, noticeable sensation for them.
Strategies to assist a child with hyposensitivity for oral sensory processing:
- Give the child items that are intended for biting, such as gum or chew jewelry (jewelry that is intended to chew on).
- Incorporate oral activities throughout the day. For example, blow bubbles, drink thick liquids from a straw, or blow cotton balls across the table.
- Provide chewy or crunchy foods that will provide extra oral sensory input. For example, apples, granola, bagels, crushed ice, and dried fruit.
- Massage the child’s gums or use vibration provided from items such as an electric toothbrush which will help to decrease the need to chew by providing alternate input.
- Use hot packs and cold packs on the face and near the mouth to help develop a child’s awareness of different temperatures.
- Use ‘alerting snacks’ such as salt and vinegar, hot or sour candies, and ice chips. These snacks provide intense oral sensations desired by children with hyposensitivity.
Children who have sensory sensitive or sensory avoiding for oral sensation may be considered over-sensitive to tastes, textures or smells.
If a child has a sensory sensitive pattern for oral sensory processing they may:
- Gag with certain food textures, food utensils, or a toothbrush in the mouth.
- Be described as a picky or selective eater, especially with regards to food textures. When the child eats nonpreferred textures, they may become frustrated or upset.
- Only eat foods with specific, preferred tastes.
If a child has a sensory avoiding pattern for oral sensory processing they may:
- Reject certain tastes, textures, or food smells that are typically part of a child’s diet. They may throw the food away from them, run away from the food, or just refuse to eat it.
- Only eat foods with specific, preferred tastes.
- Limit themselves to a very small variety of foods.
- Refuse to try new, unknown foods.
Alex is a 7-year-old girl. Alex brings the same lunch to school every day, a white bread sandwich with cream cheese and the crust cut off. According to her parents, Alex refuses to eat anything else and will gag or cry when offered other food choices. She also refuses to join the other children in the general lunchroom at school because the different smells make her gag. Whenever she is in the lunchroom, she runs away to eat alone in a different room.
Alex has a sensory avoiding pattern for oral sensory processing.
For a child with hypersensitivity to taste, textures, and smells, slowly increase their food tolerance and give them strategies to navigate their sensitivity to smells.
Strategies to assist a child with hypersensitivity for oral sensory processing:
- Slowly introduce new foods by giving the child variations of their preferred foods. For example, if the child will only eat cereal and you want them to eat blueberries, you can start by introducing blueberry flavoured cereal, then introduce blueberries together with the cereal and gradually reduce the amount of cereal until the child is eating plain blueberries.
- Encourage the child to drink between bites of food to clear their mouth.
- Use unscented cleaners and soaps around the house or use essential oils to help lessen overall scents.
- Create a mealtime routine and serve meals at the same time every day.
- To help prepare children for mealtime transitions. Provide a consistent reminder prior to the meal, have child engaged in preparation for the meal (e.g., set the table)
- Wash the child’s face with a cloth or give them ice to chew on to decrease their sensitivity to textures and tastes.