Sensory processing for the visual system uses light, colour, shape and movement to detect information through our eyes and then the brain interprets that information. Some children can become overwhelmed based on the stimuli in the environment such as having a reaction to bright lights/sunshine or cluttered walls and toy shelves. On the contrary, other children may need additional visual stimulation in order to attend to and process visual information, such as toys that have bright lights or contrasting colours.
Difficulties with receiving or processing visual information may result in either seeking or withdrawing from stimulating visual input. This may also lead to difficulties with aspects of vision such as depth perception (judging the distance of objects), hand-eye coordination, tracking moving objects or sustaining eye contact.
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 visual input in order to process their environment.
If a child has a low registration pattern for visual processing they may:
- Trip or fall down stairs or curbs because they did not see them or cannot tell how far they are
- Miss objects when trying to grab them, or be unable to locate objects that are obvious to others
- Often bump into objects or other people
If a child has a sensation seeking pattern for visual processing they may:
- Stare or become excited when they see bright flashing lights or bright colours
- Often watch others in the environment
- Gravitate towards high contrast pictures or patterns
Adison is a 5-year-old girl and is new to your senior kindergarten class. On her first day of school you notice that Adison tends to bump into tables and cubbies, as if she is not aware of where they are and does not seem to be interested in many of the toys in the classroom.
Adison has low registration. She does not notice many of the visual stimuli in her environment and does not actively seek out visual stimuli or compensate for this.
With a child who has challenges noticing, or processing visual stimuli, either because of low vision, or a high neurological threshold, you may want to provide activities or put them in environments that are very visually stimulating. Helpful tools for this are activities or objects with bright colours, lights or movements.
For example, you can try activities that include:
- Bubbles, flashlights or flashing balls
- Rolling a ball
- Creating a ‘visual wall’ with lots of colours and patterns to look at
- Use brightly coloured paper or tape on the corners of tables to make them more noticeable
A child who is sensory sensitive or sensation avoiding may be very sensitive to visual stimuli in the environment and become easily overwhelmed with sensory input.
If a child has a sensory sensitive pattern for visual processing they may:
- Prefer environments with low lighting
- Appear uncomfortable or frustrated in highly lit areas
- Be uninterested in toys with bright lights or vibrant colours
If a child has a sensation avoiding pattern for visual processing they may:
- Prefer dim lights or dull patterns
- Avoid eye contact, cover or close their eyes or squint
- Avoid bright stimulating lights
Nolan is an 8-year old boy. Every day, when it is time for outdoor recess, Nolan refuses to line up with the rest of the class to go outside. He sits in his chair, closes his eyes and will not make eye contact when you try to talk to him. After trying to understand why Nolan does not like going outside, you discover that he avoids going outside because the sun bothers him and he cannot keep his eyes open.
From the case you can see that Nolan’s visual processing pattern is sensation avoiding as his nervous system becomes easily overwhelmed by the sun, and he reacts by actively avoiding this uncomfortable stimulus.
With a child who becomes easily overwhelmed with sensory stimuli due to a low neurological threshold, you may want to use strategies that create a visually pleasing environment, and limit excess visual stimuli.
Strategies that you can try to create a visually pleasing environment:
- Whenever possible, limit excess visual stimuli. For example, you can dim the lights indoors when possible and remove wall art with vibrant colours.
- Avoid the use of fluorescent lights wherever possible. If this is not possible, you can create a sensory friendly room or area for the child to go to for self-regulation in the event they become overwhelmed by the lights.
- Provide the child with a hat, or sunglasses while outside to limit visual input.
- Incorporate rhythmical, predictable activities such as lava lamp, hourglass timer, glitter bottle, tornado tube or clear magic wand filled with sparkles. These activities have a predictable visual flow and is less overwhelming for a child.