Welcome to my guide to sensory needs!
I am not a medical professional, but I am sitting on a bunch of information about the subject that may be helpful. And I like being helpful.
Many people struggle with significant sensory needs, including those diagnosed with a Sensory Processing Disorder, Autism, and ADHD. Individuals with Down Syndrome often have vision and hearing issues that can be accommodated with sensory products as well.
Many people, even those without a diagnosis, find they prefer one sense over the others and “seek out” input as a way of calming or stimulating themselves. For some people, massage, music, or delicious foods become must-haves in their lives because of their comfort value. If you are like this, then you are already well on your way to understanding a “sensory-seeker”.
Sensory processing issues can take a few forms. A person can be over-responsive to a certain sense, which causes input from that sense to be overwhelming and even painful. Sometimes this is known as a sensory-aversion.
A person can be under-responsive to a sense, which can cause problems all its own. (Imagine being under-responsive to touch, and not being able to feel when you are being burned by hot water!)
And a person can also be sensory-seeking. This means that they require/crave more input of this sense than the average person. Sensory-seekers are often looking for ways to fill this need, but may hurt themselves accidentally in the process. (A person who is auditory-seeking, for example, may listen to music so loud that they damage their hearing.)
Those with sensory processing issues can often display both aversions and seeking behaviors at the same time. They might be adverse to one sense, but seeking in another.
Many of us are familiar with “the five senses”–vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. There are also two more that that you may have not heard of, but are very important: vestibular, and proprioceptive. Below is a small section on each.
P.S. If you suspect you or your child may have severe sensory issues, it is important to discuss your concerns with your doctor, or Occupational Therapy provider.
If someone is under-responsive to visual stimuli, they may get accused of “being blind” by their friends and family. This is different from a vision problem requiring glasses, but rather a slower response time in the brain of processing what is being seen. The best “treatment” that I know for under-responsive vision is patience and understanding from family and friends.
If someone has an aversion to visual stimuli, they may become distraught in bright, colorful environments, that they find too overwhelming/stimulating. Ways to be considerate of this is to lower lights, keep rooms neutrally decorated, and allow breaks in a dark place.
If someone is visual-seeking, they will enjoy lights and colors and even appear to be mesmerized by them for long periods of time. They may be very passionate about movies. There are many ways to add visual appeal to an environment. Ideas below.
Things that May Help Visual Over-Responsiveness/Aversions:
- Fluorescent Light Filters
Check with your local fire department before installing
- Alternative Low-Lighting
Such as string or strip lights, lamps, incandescent lights with dimmer switches
- “Sensory Shopping” hours at commercial locations, where stores lower their lights, turn off the music, and refrain from noisy announcements of the speaker system.
- Lights on Dimmer Switches
- Light Filtering or Blackout Curtains
- Privacy Tents
Things that May Help Visual Sensory-Seekers:
- Murals with lots of detail and color
- Mirrors of various sizes, shapes, and magnification.
- Visual-Tracking Wall Panels
Activities or art that provide lots of visual stimulation and eye movement
- Light Effect Fixtures
Such as tubes, panels, and projectors
- Murals & Wall Decals
Shown are some that won’t break the bank!
- Light Effects & Visual-Tracking Art
There are a growing number of budget options for home use
- Visual-Tracking Toys
Toys that require lots of eye movement
- High-Contrast, and Color-Experimentation Toys
Search “Sensory Videos” or “Autism Sensory Therapy” on YouTube
If someone is under-responsive to auditory input, they may appear to be “in their own world” at times, and accused of not paying attention, when truly, they didn’t hear what was being said, or have not yet processed what was said. This could be thought of as an online video that is “buffering”. It’s working on it… just give it a second to catch up! To accommodate someone who is under-responsive to sound, remember to make sure you have their attention before speaking to them and be patient if asked to repeat yourself.
If someone has an aversion/over-responsiveness to noise, they may become distraught or even appear to “shut down” in noisy environments, finding it difficult to think and communicate clearly. Ways to be considerate of this is to consider the type of background music or noise (avoid loud rock music, for instance), and to reduce volume as much as possible. Provide hearing protection in all work environments.
If someone is auditory-seeking, they will enjoy sounds, and may seek out repetitive sounds.(Or make their own by rhythmically drumming/tapping on objects.) They may be very passionate about music.
Things that May Help Auditory Over-Responsiveness/Aversions:
- Hearing Protection Ear Muffs
Ear muffs that reduce decibels aren’t just helpful for operating power tools! They now come in adult, youth, child, and infant sizing and a range of colors/designs. Some are integrated with Bluetooth, so they can be worn to reduce outside noise while on the phone or listening to music/podcasts/audiobooks.
- Loop, Flair, or Calmer In-Ear Noise Reduction Aids
These devices work like reverse hearing aids. They “turn down” the volume you are hearing instead of “turning it up.” They are worn in the ear like a hearing aid, and filter out noise/reduce decibels.
- White Noise Machines
To cancel out distracting sounds while reading, studying, or sleeping
- “Sensory Shopping” hours at commercial locations, where stores lower their lights, turn off the music, and refrain from noisy announcements of the speaker system.
Things that May Help Auditory Sensory-Seekers:
- Background Music
- Sound Therapy Items
- Vibroacoustic Therapy Items
Many people think of sound only in terms of hearing, but sound can also be experienced as vibration. Vibroacoustic Therapy products help users experience the vibration of sound waves with less noise.
- Percussion Instruments
Take a “body break” with sound and rhythm. A fun way is by teaching a class how to play a song with “Boomwhackers“
- Fidget Toys
Some fidget toys have a sound component including Pop-Its, Pop Tubes & Wacky Tracks
- Favorite Music
Keep the iPod charged!
- Decibel-Controlled Headphones
To prevent hearing loss from turning the volume up too loudly
- Noisy Toys/Games/Musical Instruments
- Home Décor that Makes Interesting Sounds
Such as Fountains, or Windchimes
- Dreampad Pillow
Vibroacoustic therapy for home use at a more affordable price.
If someone is under-responsive to touch, they may appear to be clumsy or have poor handwriting, as a result of not receiving enough “feedback” from items in their hands.
If someone has an aversion/oversensitivity to touch, they may be extra-sensitive to textures and physical affection. They may be uncomfortable with hugs, handshakes, or other physical touch. They may be very particular about the clothing they wear, opting to be “comfortable” at all times. They may have a sensory-based feeding disorder that limits the types of foods they can tolerate eating due to how the different textures feel in their mouth.
If someone is tactile-seeking, they may be extra-affectionate, struggle with “look, don’t touch” rules, and enjoy working with their hands. They may also be “chewers,” chewing on things they shouldn’t, or biting people for no apparent reason (not as a result of a temper tantrum/anger, but rather trying to put other people’s hands in their mouths, etc…).
Things that May Help Tactile Under-Responsiveness:
- Tactile Discrimination Activities
Activities designed to practice differentiating between textures and shapes
- Tactile Discrimination Toys
- Homemade Tactile Discrimination Toys/Activities
Pinterest has a wealth of of DIY tutorials for making sensory products at home that won’t blow the budget, such as sensory bins, textured pillows, “sensory walks,” etc…
When handling fragile objects, gloves with “grips” may prove useful
Things that May Help Tactile Over-Responsiveness/Aversions:
- Tagless Clothing, Very Soft Clothing, Athletic Wear
Old Navy has a great line of shirts for children called their “Ultrasoft” T’s. They are both tagless and incredibly gentle and soft. My son loves them!
- Feeding Therapy & consultations with a Dietician if eating is an issue.
Things that May Help Tactile Sensory-Seekers:
- Fidget Pillows or Lap Pads
Something to keep on their lap to touch and feel while trying to sit and concentrate at a desk or story circle
- Fidget Toys
For the same reason, a collection of varied fidget toys is a great addition to any classroom (be it school, Sunday School, or clubs) or waiting room (be it a teacher’s office, or a dentist/optometrist office). Amazon has begun selling variety boxes that take the guesswork out of which toys to try.
- Sensory Break Room
Larger and more permanent tactile activities are a great addition to a break room for children of all sensory needs
- Sensory Bins
Once again, Pinterest is your friend here. The crafty moms and bloggers of Pinterest-land have thousands of tutorials ready for you. The same sensory activities that you would use to help an under-responsive child will also soothe, satisfy, and delight a sensory-seeking child.
- “Mermaid” Products
Mermaid fabric (sequined fabric that can be brushed up and down with your hand) is very popular, with good reason. These products are very fun to pet and touch.
- Fidget Toys
A variety box is a good way to start, but you will soon find that your child has a preference. Stock up on these ones, and keep one in your purse, one in the car, one in their backpack, etc… They can be lifesavers!
Chewers definitely benefit from having something to chew on other than their own hands or shirt-sleeves! It can also cut down on biting incidents in preschool, which I can confidently say that we all want, amiright?
“Chewlery” comes in a variety of sizes (for little-big mouths) and levels of firmness (soft-hard). It is recommended that you go with the softest one your chewer can enjoy, to prevent damage to the jaw/teeth, however, aggressive chewers will require more firm chews. (My son bit clean through some of his first chews. I remember he once went through $80 worth of chewlery in a week! Thank goodness we finally found something that worked for him!)
Our top two favorite chewlery brands are Ark (particularly their “brick sticks”) and Zilla Chu Buddy
Gustatory sensitivity seems to be the sense that science/medicine knows the least about. Pin-pointing what is or is not a “taste” problem is difficult to do because “taste” is related to so many other things, including the sense of smell, and the sensitivity of pain receptors in the mouth (that detect spiciness).
Many things can change and affect a person’s sense of taste over their lifetime, including: vitamin/mineral deficiencies, the use of some medications, pregnancy, and chemotherapy treatment. There is also some speculation that children taste things stronger than adults, and that we all lose some of our sense of taste over time, which could account for why children tend to be “picky eaters” and then “grow out of it.”
With very little information about gustatory sensory issues, there are no commonly used therapy products that I can point you to, however, it is worth saying that if a distorted sense of taste is affecting your/your child’s diet to the point of unbalanced nutrition or causing you/them to be underweight, it is important to speak to your doctor and get referrals to a Dietician and Feeding Therapist. Working in tandem, these two specialists can try to ensure that a person is receiving sufficient nutrition while eating foods that are a tolerable color, texture, smell, and taste.
An understanding of the steps involved in eating may also be very helpful. My son struggles to eat and has a sensory-based feeding disorder. When his feeding therapist shared the following information with me, it changed the way I approach mealtimes in our home.
Dr. Kay Toomey suggests that everyone goes through 6 Steps every time they eat something. Many of us progress through these steps without realizing it. However, if someone is struggling to eat, helping them achieve just one more step towards eating is progress worth celebrating!
Step 1: Tolerate (Just being in the same room or at the same table as a disliked food.)
Step 2: Interact With (Stir/help prepare a food. Carry it to the table. Be willing to associate with the food without actually eating it.)
Step 3: Smell (This has several steps of its own, including smelling it in the room, smelling it at the table, smelling it on your plate, and then finally leaning in to take a good sniff.)
Step 4: Touch (Being able to touch something you find disgusting is a big deal! There are also braver and braver degrees of touching, from poking with the tip of your finger, to holding in the palm of your hand, to letting it touch your face.)
Step 5: Taste (Some sub-steps could be putting the food to your lips, taking it away, and then licking your lips; licking a spoon or fork that had the food on it, but is now empty; touching with the tip of the tongue; licking; taking a bite and immediately spitting it out.)
Step 6: Eating (Able to tolerate the food in your mouth, taste it, chew it, swallow it.)
Things that May Help Gustatory Sensitivities
- Feeding Therapy (see above)
- Children’s Toothpaste
Many people with sensitivities report that most “adult” toothpastes cause them pain, due to the intense flavors (mint, spearmint, cinnamon, etc…). But as long as a toothpaste has fluoride, it gets the job done! So don’t be afraid to switch to a gentler flavor, like strawberry, or bubble gum.
If taste is the sense we know the least about, smell is second in line! Much like taste, the sense of smell changes and diminishes with age, and can be altered temporarily or permanently by illnesses. Some people struggle more than others to distinguish between scents in general.
Anyone who has walked down the laundry detergent aisle or candle aisle at a department store can sympathize with the idea of scents becoming overwhelming. If someone you know struggles with hypersensitivity to scent, they may feel like they are trapped in that aisle all of the time.
Things that May Help Olfactory Over-Responsiveness/Aversions:
- Creating a Scent-Free Zone
Many hospitals and Doctor’s offices ask that people refrain from wearing perfume/cologne and using heavily scented shampoos, lotions, etc… out of respect for those with scent sensitivities. A workplace, classroom, or place of worship could do the same.
- Unscented Laundry Products
- Air Purifiers
Things that May Help Olfactory Sensory-Seekers:
- Essential Oil Diffusers
While some people like to claim that essential oils are miracle cures, there is only one thing that can be proven for sure: they smell nice. Great for individuals who crave comforting scents.
- Essential Oil Jewelry
Carry a comforting scent with you throughout the day.
- Scented Candles and/or Air Fresheners
- Scented Stuffed Animals
Vestibular (Balance & Spatial Awareness)
The vestibular sense refers to body functions that are controlled by the Vestibular System in the inner ear and the connection between the inner ear and the brain: balance and the eye movement that creates spatial awareness. (Spatial awareness in the ability to track 3D objects through space. Many people would refer to this as depth perception and hand-eye coordination.)
Have you ever had an ear infection that caused you to feel dizzy, off-balance, and even nauseous? Then you have experienced what it is like to have your Vestibular System disrupted.
Individuals with an under-responsive vestibular system need to train and practice to increase their level of balance and spatial awareness. Children with vestibular under-responsiveness may lag behind their peers in walking, running, throwing and catching. Adults with an under-responsive vestibular system may be “accident prone,” and likely to fall. It is worth noting that the vestibular system weakens with age, which is why seniors require extra support.
An over-responsive vestibular system can be the cause of vertigo (that sick feeling that the room is spinning).
If a sensory-seeker craves vestibular sensory input, they will enjoy activities that challenge their balance and depth perception, and will typically excel at sports. Someone who seeks vestibular input does not require therapy or therapeutic items because this craving does not hamper their every-day life. They are simply “athletic,” and can get what they need by playing a variety of sports, like baseball, football, tennis, squash, etc…
Things that Help Develop & Support the Vestibular System
- Physical Therapy
Consult your doctor to receive a referral.
- Vestibular Exercises
A Physical Therapist is your first source for a list of home exercises that will work for you. There are also a number of exercise videos on YouTube that may help.
The back and forth rocking sensation helps develop vestibular awareness. Many people develop their vestibular awareness in the rocking chair on mom’s lap as an infant. People that require more development can use a variety of rocking devices:
Similar to rocking, this sensation gives the inner ear a workout! Most public parks have swings for free public use, however a therapy swing may be in order if: the individual has balance issues or a physical disability that make standard swings too dangerous; the individual is fully grown and no longer fits on a playground swing; you live in an area where outdoor swings are seasonal, due to weather; or the sensory need is so strong that you want one in your home at all times.
The sensation of “wobbling,” (unpredictable weight shifts and being slightly off-balance) can also help strengthen the vestibular system.
Proprioceptive (Movement & Force)
The Proprioceptive System refers to the connection of signals between the brain, joints, and muscles. The proprioceptive sense allows a person to move about without consciously thinking about it. Rather, the brain, muscles and joints engage in a constant conversation on their behalf. The muscles and joints send feedback to the brain about what is happening in the environment, and the brain processes that information and sends a response back telling the muscles and joints what to do and how to do it. The Proprioceptive System is responsible for how much pressure or force is applied when we do an action, causing a person to be “rough,” or “gentle.” (Something toddlers universally seem to struggle with as their Proprioceptive System develops.)
Someone with an under-responsive Proprioceptive System will have difficulty moving in a fluid, normal-looking way. Funnily enough, one of the tests medical practitioners use to measure someone’s Proprioceptive System, is a “Field Sobriety Test” (walking a straight line, standing on one foot, touching the tip of the nose with tip of the finger, etc…) that Police Officers use on suspected impaired drivers, because the same physical skills that are impaired by substances are impaired when the Proprioceptive System is not functioning optimally.
Proprioceptive sensory-seeking looks like a preference/enjoyment for gross motor activity. Individuals may enjoy sports like weightlifting or boxing, may enjoy manual labor jobs that require hard work and heavy lifting, and enjoy deep pressure in the form of massages and big bear hugs.
Things that Help Develop & Support the Proprioceptive System
- Physical Therapy
- Occupational Therapy
An Occupational Therapist can point a person to devices that will assist them in their day-to-day life
- Practicing Yoga or Tai Chi
Which improves balance and muscle strength
- Deep-Tissue Massage
To stimulate muscles, or for enjoyment by those that seek deep pressure
- Wilbarger Therapressure Brushing
This is a therapeutic technique that involves firmly running a soft brush down the limbs and body to stimulate the muscles. This can be helpful for clients that become agitated with a lack of movement/input. An Occupational Therapist can teach parents and caregivers the correct way to do this therapy in a single session. When my son was very young, his Educational Aide would use this quick form of input when he showed signs of being frustrated between recesses.
NASA has discovered that vibration therapy helps prevent muscle and bone density loss in space. Some therapists apply this principle to stimulate muscles during Physical Therapy. Vibroacoustic Therapy items (included in my post about hearing) is a gentle way to introduce vibration at home.
- Compression Clothing
Clothes that simulate a tight, hugging sensation all day long. Hands down, the best compression clothing we have ever tried with my son is Jettproof brand, created by an Autism Mom from Australia. These are absolutely 100% worth the extra time they take to ship! Their collection of compression tops, shorts, bodysuits, and more can be worn discretely under clothing and provide continuous comfort for sensory-seekers.
- Weighted Blankets or Compression Bedding
To provide pressure input for sensory-seekers that allows them to relax, remain calm, and sleep.
- Compression Therapy Items
My family can definitely vouch for the Pea Pod! My son would crawl in with a blanket and rest/read for hours after an overstimulating day. It also rocks back and forth, making it a 2 for 1 therapy item for both proprioceptive and vestibular input.
Give the muscles a workout with some resistance feedback.
- Heavy Work
Lifting and moving heavy objects, or bodyweight exercises provide deep input. Many items that help are exercise/recreation equipment, so you don’t have to pay extra for the word “therapy” on the box.
I hope you find this information helpful as you explore sensory needs for yourself or a loved one. Once again, please reach out to a medical professional if anyone is showing severe signs of an under or over responsive sensory system, as a sudden onset of symptoms can indicate an infection or other medical condition.
© 2022 ashleylilley.com
Disclosure: No affiliations here! While this page may contain links to products, I am not an affiliate or ambassador for any brand. I do not receive commission or kickback of any kind for recommending products. Just sharing stuff I love, and hope it helps someone. If you wish to support my blog in some way, please consider following me on social media and sharing my links with your friends. -Ashley