Sensory processing is the way each individual experiences the world. The feel of wind on one’s face, the taste of hot chocolate, and riding an elevator are examples and can be experienced very differently for each person. One might find the hot chocolate much too hot and bitter and another doesn’t even notice that it’s hot or bitter. Every person’s neurological system is constantly monitoring and modulating their sensory intake but the “monitoring and modulating equipment” of each individual varies. Some of us have finely honed equipment which is highly sensitive and others have equipment which registers far less, even though the input (say a cup of hot chocolate) is exactly the same. Thus, each person’s reaction to sensory input varies.
Think of how a baby tries a new food and is startled, the water in our bath is cold so we add hot water; we are feeling sluggish so we get up and do some jumping jacks. Young children’s neurological systems are growing quickly and their sensory experiences are part of its growth. High energy activities like jumping, swinging, spinning, running, pushing, and pulling, as well as the strong food likes and dislikes such as crunchy or smooth or salty or sweet foods, are common in childhood and are thought in part to represent the child modulating and responding to the needs of their sensory system. In therapy lingo we call this the child’s sensory diet.
Many children naturally get their sensory needs met every day by taking in what their system needs in terms of playing and being active, enjoying several variations of foods, taking risks, laughing, crying, clapping, hugging, connecting, and so on. For these children, the world they live in provides enough opportunities for their systems to naturally learn and modulate. This is important so children are able to be focused, centered, and alert for learning, listening, and responding. Those who have far more or far less sensitive sensory systems do not receive an automatic sensory diet. These children can have difficulty functioning in the environments they live in. Sometimes a child can gain what they need if more time is spent outside in an environment that is sensory rich and open-ended, such as a sandbox, swings, trees, versus slides and artificial turf. Other children have more complex sensory systems and need movement experiences and a guide, typically an occupational therapist, to help them experience specific sensory experiences and to help their parents create a sensory diet which suits their child.
When trying to understand your child, we invite you to consider farm life and how far most of our lives are from that. Farm life includes a lot of time outside, which means exposure to weather and fresh air and one’s body adapting. Another characteristic of this farm life is, doing chores and the “heavyweight” and movement experiences that are involved, such as pushing a wheelbarrow, feeding the animals by scooping out of buckets, and other tasks that provide significant time each day in the modulation of one’s sensory system. Also, smaller groups of children (sibling groups) in wide open spaces is more manageable for some young children early on as their sensory systems are developing. Another key factor is the routine of farm life which can be calming to many young children. There is also the sense of ownership and contributing to one’s family. Why is this important to consider? It wouldn’t be feasible or desirable for most families to pack up and embrace farm life! Before answering that, perhaps the most important aspect of this is to consider that perhaps your child doesn’t have a “problem” that needs to be fixed.
Those with sensory systems that are more or less sensitive may need some extra help to function well and yet, we invite you to not lose sight of the sizable strengths that sensory systems on the very sensitive or less sensitive side may bring. A child with a super sensitive palate may later gravitate towards being a sommelier, food critic, or cook. A child who doesn’t register a lot of what is happening around him may have fantastic ability to focus on tasks such as composing music or writing computer programs. In our view, as the world becomes more complex and children’s lives have less outside, unfettered time, the definition of what a “normal” child is becoming more and more narrow. Fewer children are able to naturally modulate their sensory systems as they have less time and opportunities for varied sensory experiences. It’s not optimistic or pessimistic, it leaves an opportunity for parents to gain greater understanding of sensory diets, to learn to observe their child from this lens, and for those children that need more help with the creation of their sensory diet.
Let’s go through the fundamentals. When thinking about your child’s sensory system, it is important to recognize it as just another area of your child’s development. Our sensory system is made up of vision, smell, taste, balance, hearing, touch, and body awareness. And like many other areas of development, motor, cognitive, and speech development, it all varies so widely by the child! All of us register our senses at different levels and intensities, and when those levels are too high or too low, we need help interpreting and organizing so we can fully engage in life. While sensory processing is important to manage to increase quality of life and engagement, nothing needs to be changed about YOUR CHILD! Where occupational therapists come into play in regards to helping children sensory processing, is looking at how we can change or modify their environments and teaching you and your child ways to organize one’s sensory input so that a calm, alert state can be achieved.
As we mentioned above, children’s lives look progressively different than even five to 10 years ago. As society becomes more complex, the demands on a child are also becoming more complex. Meeting these complexities are challenging for any child. For a child who naturally has a more sensitive or less sensitive sensory system, you may see signs that the child is not feeling a sense of emotional stability, wholeness, connection, and alertness. How can we expect children to communicate effectively, express their emotions, and tolerate or engage in environments when their view of the world is too much or too little for the sensory systems? As a parent or caregiver, we can help you interpret cues your child is giving and ways to help your child experience the world in a way that is comforting, and successful for them.
The goal is for a child to feel whole, have some flexibility in routines, be able to focus for sufficient periods, be able to interact and connect with others, be prepared to learn, have some management of emotions, and be creative. To do this, some will benefit from working with an occupational therapist to create sensory experiences specific to their sensory needs. The idea is to build a sensory diet; the parent to implement it at home in a way that makes sense for their family; and eventually for the child to instinctively know when and what sensory input their system needs. A sensory diet is an ever evolving part of development as a child’s neurological system will begin to better manage and seek input.
What is a Sensory Diet?
A sensory diet is often designed by an occupational therapist once the child’s sensory needs have been identified. This “diet” or plan, provides children with experiences or tools to meet their sensory needs that are specific to your child. A sensory diet gives your child activities and tools that prevent dysregulation and what activities will help your child return to an alert, functioning, and regulated state.
Signs your child might benefit from a sensory diet:
Note: some children have high responsiveness, some low and thus the signs can be contradictory. Also, it can be difficult to know what is a normal phase of development and what may warrant some specific help. There is often an element of behavior intertwined. A sensory trained occupational therapist can help sort through these for your child to best operate from a position of wholeness and centeredness as much of the time as possible.
- Child may frequently jump off of furniture, bump into walls, and throw self onto the floor purposefully. Sometimes this represents a desire to feel strong pressure and input through their body. This behavior may present through risky or dangerous behaviors during play, or during emotional outburst in attempts to help themselves regulate
- Child may be an extremely picky eater, above and beyond the normal picky phases that most children go through. This could look like only eating foods of the same texture, brands, colors, temperature, or having a diet consisting of five different foods. This child may also display strong emotional responses when presented with foods they know they don’t prefer.
- Child may refuse different forms of clothing like socks with seams, tags, or unique textures like wool or fur. Children with these preferences often prefer to wear the same clothing items and have their favorite pieces from their wardrobe.
- Child constantly seeks heavy and high intensity physical activity and has difficulty sitting still during table top activities during meals.
- Child displays strong emotional responses to having their face and hands dirty. They may be painting, and immediately become upset when paint touches their skin, or immediately request to clean themselves when food sticks to their hands or face.
- Child may respond to large gestures, loud voices, but may miss more “every day cues” like a tap on the shoulder or when their name is called in a busy environment.
- Child may become upset in or avoid situations with loud noises or bright lights. They likely immediately cover their ears or eyes when these senses are presented them, especially unexpectedly
- Child may experience difficulty labeling and expressing their emotions and needs. This child may have a hard time picking up on other’s emotions; making new friends, meeting new people, and have a hard time with conflict resolution.
- Child loves to making odd noises with their mouth, like blowing raspberries, whistling
- Child may appear clumsy and frequently falls or bumps into people and objects in their environment. Often seem to be unaware of obstacles around them.
Five ways to learn to read your child’s sensory needs and create a sensory toolbox/diet
- Reflect on your own sensory needs.
Consider thinking about your own sensory experiences and how you cope with everyday life. Have you ever become overstimulated in a crowd, or felt the need to get outside and get moving after a long day in the office, or needed a quiet moment to gather yourself after a long day with the kids? Think about what you did in those moments. You likely automatically knew how to wind down or do the right thing based how your mind and body felt. Children are just like us, and may just need help recognizing what their bodies need. Recognizing your methods of responding to your own needs may help you create ways to help your child. Of course your child’s reactions and needs are those of a child, we aren’t suggesting you get your child a latte and a chat with a friend!
- Observe and look for patterns in your child’s behavior.
Over the next few weeks, quietly observe your child’s behavior for possible cues that they are having a hard time modulating incoming sensory experiences. Are they displaying any of the examples listed above? Do you tend to notice emotional outbursts or certain behaviors at particular times of day or following a specific activity? Does being tired or hungry play a role? Consider journaling observations to look for trends, what is changing, what is staying the same? Caregivers and teachers can be valuable resources in helping see patterns.
Introduce and slowly experiment with changes to your child’s routines and environments and toys and movements and see what happens! There are endless possibilities and you are probably doing some already. Laying clothes out the night before with sensitivity to those that are bothersome to the child yet with an eye towards the child’s need for protection from the weather and whatnot, depending on age the child may be part of this; adding a 10 minute fun “heavy work” break into the morning and afternoon where the child has a choice of moving heavy items or jumping on a small trampoline or doing wall push ups; eating a heavier breakfast at home before childcare; adding the same new food onto the child’s plate at lunch and dinner without expectation placed to eat it, but to allow it to stay on the plate (or whatever tiny step you decide upon). These are a few limited ideas that represent a world of possibilities.
Please understand your child will need time to use tools from their sensory diet and that modulation occurs as children begin to recognize what they need. Because of this, it is important to not push a child too far during this process. For example, if they have strong aversions to certain foods, allow them to explore those foods through means other than actually eating them. Gradual exposure and exploration often works best when trying to integrate a new sense.
- Educate your child on their sensory system pointing out successes in just the right way.
Managing your senses can get tricky in the world we live in today. Have upbeat and low key conversations with your child about how their environments and activities do or don’t make them feel. When you notice a change in their ability to organize sensory information, point it out to them! For example, if you have been implementing a new sensory tool and now use a ball for the child instead of a chair during tabletop activities at preschool, and your child’s teacher comments on the helpfulness of this, be sure to point it out to your child! If your child is starting to get frustrated and asks to jump up and down 10 times and then is able to resume the frustrating task, note it mentally and bring it up before bedtime as a compliment.
Doing this helps the child gain awareness of modifications that are helping them so that they can learn to apply them to other situations. The child learns that it is good to have awareness of one’s needs and then to courteously get those needs met, within the constraints of the family or school’s needs at any given moment. Courteously so that the child gains flexibility and understanding of the needs around them. This is all a tall order for a young child and a work in progress for all children!
- A special note about feeding difficulties and picky eaters.
Again, it can be difficult to sort out what is a normal childhood stage and what is not. When it comes to feeding, a more detailed approach is needed. The tips here are more generalized. If they work and your child is eating a fairly wide variety of foods, great. If you have doubt, consult an occupational therapist who has experience with feeding to help sort it out. It’s not unusual for there to be underlying oral motor weaknesses which are influencing food choices. Also, feeding is a primary human function and one that quickly catapults into a parent-child dynamic that needs help. That is, the parent understandably becomes highly concerned about lack of nutrition and the child feels the pressure, and it snowballs into mealtime being a significant source of conflict and control. One family mealtime everyday is a worthwhile goal. This meal is an opportunity for low key exposure to various smells and colors and sights; the child sees others enjoying a variety of food; and perhaps most of all associate meal time as a time of connection, lightness, and sharing. There are many ins and outs to the human need for food.
In part 2 of this blog post we’ll get into more detailed ideas with age ranges for exposing and creating a sensory diet! Please keep in mind an upbeat and low key manner is helpful. Also, know that if you need help or your child’s fullness of life is being impacted and you’re not seeing progress, occupational therapists who specialize in this area are here to help.
Olivia Willis OTD Student
Susan Klemm MS, OTR/L