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Sensory Processing

Definition – What is sensory processing

We all have 8 different sensory systems and process sensory input/ information daily from our environment. Our brain helps to keep us organized and less overwhelmed when we focus on one sense at a time. Our brains keep us in an optimal state of arousal and attention to help us stay engaged and calm to complete our activities. When we move below our optimal state of arousal we adjust our behaviour to bring us back to the optimal state.

What are sensory processing differences?

Some individuals react to sensory input differently. They may be over-responsive to sensory input and can experience sensory overload (e.g., activate nervous system in fight, flight or freeze – acting aggressive towards others, running away). They can also be under-responsive to sensory input and tries to seek out this sensory input (e.g., touches other students/ objects frequently, use too much/little pressure when writing, leaves chair to walk/run around). 

Tactile/touch 

refer to pressure, pain, temperature, texture

Hyperreactive responses – what you may see- avoid physical touch/hugs, reacts strongly to wearing clothing with tags

  • Encourage child to take the lead when they get dirty during play, avoid unexpected light touch, try a ‘touch and feel’ box – different objects for child to explore, at different times include different textures  

Hyporeactive responses – what you may see – constantly touches people/ objects, unusual high pain tolerance, unaware of own strength – rough play

  • Activities – sensory bins filled with rice, flour and beans; sensory doughs e.g., playdough, cloud dough; finger painting; 

Proprioceptive

in our muscles and joints; sense of body awareness – control force and pressure

Hyperreactive responses – what you may see – appears uncoordinated in their movements, move their whole body to look at something, refuse to participate in activities that require physical effort ex. Riding a bike, climbing

  • Activities – use calming strategies frequently, tightly squeeze playdough, squeezy ball, try out animal walks, yoga stretches, activities that focus on fine motor skills (beading, stacking), create a quiet area for the child to go to when feeling overwhelmed 

Hyporeactive responses – what you may see – appear floppy and lean against people, furniture and wall for support, limited sense of personal space, prefer to run, jump and stomp, play roughly with other children

  • Activities – crab walk; gorilla jumps; hand squeezes; stretches; squeezing playdough;

Vestibular/ balance

detects speed and direction of movement

Hyperreactive responses – what you may see – avoiding activities that take feet off the ground (jumping and swinging), motion sickness, has trouble changing directions when walking

  • Activities – yoga (movements that keep child’s feet secure on ground, when using unfamiliar equipment – keep a firm hand on their shoulder, waist or arm (helps them feel more secure)

Hyporeactive responses – what you may see- difficulty sitting upright, bumping into objects, need to constantly move

  • Activities – skipping; jogging around playground/ on the spot; star jumps; bouncing on an exercise ball; chair push-ups

Taste

linked to our sense of smell; processes flavours such as sweet, sour, bitter

  • Activities – comparing ice cubes and frozen fruits to water and room temperature fruit; try crunchy, chewy, dry, soft foods; blowing bubbles

Smell 

Hyper-reactive responses – what you may see – becomes agitated/ gags around certain smells, tell other people they “stink”

  • Activities – unscented/fragrance-free environments, seat child away from triggering scents (garbage bin), provide child with preferred scent (if they have one)

Hypo-reactive responses – what you may see – enjoy strong scents, doesn’t notice “dangerous smells”, trouble identifying smells of food

  • Activities – set up a smelling station – use cotton balls with essential oils, spices, smelly objects; use food and cooking to stimulate smell

Visual 

Hyperreactive responses – what you may see – shield eye from bright/fluorescent light, refuse to go in room with too much on the wall 

  • Activities – make shapes/ letters and numbers using different materials; “eye breaks”, reduce clutter 

Hyporeactive responses – what you may see – looking at things out of the corner of their eye, shining bright light (sunlight), directly in eye, unaware of new people in environment, holds item close for inspection

  • Activities – flashlight tag, sensory bottles, light table activities, match the picture with the word

Auditory/hearing  

Hyperreactive responses – what you may see- covering ears and running away from noises or loud environments 

  • Activities – Calming music, matching sound game, rhymes and chants

Hyporeactive responses – what you may see- creating loud noises, yelling repeatedly

  • Activities – Musical instruments; group story telling; sound machines

Interoception

sensations from inside the body including perceptions of physical sensations e.g., hunger, thirst

Hyperreactive responses – what you may see – avoid going outside in certain weather conditions, frequently uses the washroom to not have a full bladder, drink excessive amounts of water to not be thirsty

Hyporeactive responses – what you may see – does not take off heavy clothing despite sweating, does not respond to injuries, frequent accidents because they do not react to full bladder 

  • Activities –  Label the way your body feels during everyday activities; allow students to notice the way their body feels during daily activities (e.g., during outdoor play when they are sweating, heart racing); animal yoga poses

What to look for

  • There is no one size fits all approach, be a sensory detective! Observe your students and know if your students are sensitive to different senses
  • Behaviours such as throwing tantrums, screaming when face gets wet, unusually low/high pain threshold can mean that the child has a sensory processing issue
  • For more personalized recommendations, please see an Occupational Therapist
  • Note that for young children, they may not always be experiencing sensory dysregulation. Make sure that the other basic needs of the child are met (e.g., thirst, hunger) and that other factors aren’t contributing to the children’s behaviours! 
  • For more information visit this website on what over and under responsiveness looks like: https://aidecanada.ca/learn/sensory-regulation/sensory-processing-differences-toolkit and https://www.sensorysmarts.com/sensory_diet_activities.html 

Sensory Lifestyle 

A sensory lifestyle is an individualized approach to meet the sensory needs of a child 

throughout the day so that they are able to meaningfully engage in the activities that they want and need to do. This includes making lifestyle changes that have sensory supports within it. 

Goals for creating a sensory lifestyle 

  • Helping professionals understand a child’s sensory profile 
  • Being proactive about managing the child’s reactions to sensory stimuli and preventing sensory overwhelm 
  • Understand why a behaviour is occurring for a child 
  • Provides the sensory supports for a person to self-regulate and support optimal levels 
  • of functioning and participation for children. 
  • Including sensory inputs throughout the day help us feel more regulated and stay within our optimal level of arousal. For example, if our energy is low, having a movement break for the entire class or refilling a cup of coffee may help us feel more awake. 
  • A sensory lifestyle can also be beneficial for the whole class, rather than for one child. The same activity can be both alerting or calming to different children. 

Written by: Stephanie Wong (Student Occupational Therapist)


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