Our sensory system is very complicated. A lot of times when we hear about sensory, we think about our 5 senses (taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing.) This blog will take us into a deep dive of early intervention for sensory differences and the definition of different sensory processing areas. Early Intervention services provide supports for children birth through age three who demonstrate developmental delays.
These delays could be caused by a variety of reasons, from autism, chromosome abnormalities, drug exposure, prematurity, motor impairments, language delays and more.
Early Intervention for Sensory Differences
One of the areas that is always assessed when determining if a child is eligible for Early Intervention services is the area of sensory processing. These areas include Low Registration, Sensation Seeking, Sensation Sensitivity, and Sensation Avoidance. Also addressed are the areas of Sensory and behavioral including general, auditory, visual, touch, movement, oral and behavioral differences.
We will explore these areas in more detail throughout this blog post. Sensory diets are one of the most common and impactful ways to support children with sensory differences.
This article describes sensory diets as “A sensory diet is a set of activities that make up a sensory strategy and are appropriate for an individual’s needs. These are specific and individualized activities that are scheduled into a child’s day and are used to assist with regulation of activity levels, attention, and adaptive responses. Sensory diet activities are prescribed based on the individual’s specific sensory needs.”
There are four quadrants in a sensory profile. This visual clearly defines the similarities and differences between seeking, sensitivity, registration and avoidance.
The infant/toddler sensory profile is a common assessment used to determine the needs of a child in the following areas If a child is over-responsive to sensory input, they would fall in the sensory seek or slow to register sensory input sections. If a child is under responsive to sensory input, they would fall in the sensory sensitive or sensory avoider sections.
What are sensory differences?
These areas of sensory diversity make up the term sensory differences. Beyond the four quadrants, however, there are other sensory differences to consider. These are described below.
All of these sensory differences described are part of the neurodiversity of human life. We all are different when it comes to sensory, and we are all sensory. Just like the diversity of physical attributes, personal preferences, characteristics, sensory differences are just one more difference that makes us who we are.
This area determines if a child seeks out sensory input. If a child is scored higher than most in this area, you may see them move around more, look at items that spin (such as fans or toys with wheels) be attracted to fast paced and brightly colored television shows.
Here are some wonderful home ideas for children who are sensory seekers.
This area determines a child’s ability to notice different senses. If a child scores higher than most in this area, you may see a child always needing a routine to stay calm, startle to certain sounds, become upset during routine hygiene activities (such as getting hair brushed or nails trimmed) and significant preferences on types and textures of foods.
Here are some ways to support children in a controlled way, who show needs in the sensitivity area.
This area determines how a child responds to sensory input from others or their environment. This article by the pediatric development center explains how important registration is for a child’s functioning and learning.
It describes registration as: “Sensory registration is the process by which children respond or attend to sensory input in their environments. The nervous system must first notice the sensory information, once registered the memory compares it to things they have heard or seen, and thus gives new information meaning. Children who fail to respond or have delayed responses to sensory information have diminished sensory registration. Diminished sensory registration is often associated with one or two weaker sensory systems, such as the auditory or vestibular system. Without sensory registration, no other learning can take place.”
If a child scores higher than most in this area, you may see a child miss sensory input more than others do. A child in this section may miss eye contact, pay attention to only specific tones, and ignore most sounds. These children are harder to engage or seem uninterested in activities. They may need tactile, auditory and visual cues to initiate engagement in conversation or an activity.
Here are some ways to support children with low registration.
This area determines how a child’s need to control the amount and type of sensations at any given time. If a child scores higher than most in this area, you may see a child resist playing with other children due to overwhelm, resist being cuddled when it’s not on their terms, frequently become upset if their hands are messy, have a hard time calming down in new settings and isn’t interested in trying new foods.
Here are some tips on how to support an avoider.
General Processing items measure the child’s responses related to routines and schedules. This could include daily schedules, routine schedules or task related routines including how children respond to questions, others actions, busy situations, sleeping routines, eating patterns and hygiene needs, daily transitions and other schedule related activities.
These first/then visual boards are a wonderful tool in supporting routines and schedules.
This area addresses how children respond to things they hear. Auditory input includes responding to their name, how easily it is for someone to get their attention and how distracted they become in noisy settings. The brain processes the sounds in our environment and according to this article, sensitivity to sound could be a reaction to a part of our brain that pays more attention to sounds then it needs to. One article explains it this way:
“When there is no medical reason to explain the auditory sensitivity, researchers think that the brain is not processing sounds adequately. Researchers suggest that the part of the brain that receives and filters noise and sound, the amygdala, is working differently. The amygdala decides on how important noises are. It decides and which sounds we should attend to and which ones to ignore. When someone experiences sensitivity to sounds, it is thought the amygdala pays more attention to sounds than it needs to.”
This area addresses how children respond to things they see, including bright objects, such as lights and toys. It describes how they respond to reflections in mirrors and their responses to objects that spin or move suddenly. According to this article our brains interpret the light we see through our eyes, and:
“The visual system uses light to detect information through our eyes and then interprets or makes sense of that information in the brain. It works closely with our vestibular and auditory systems to help us safely navigate our environment by orienting us to where we are in relation to other objects. The ability to cognitively process information we take in through our eyes can be broken down into several categories, called visual perceptual skills. Those with trouble in one area of visual perception may present with strong skills in another area, meaning that deficits in processing of visual information can take on many forms.”
This area addresses how children respond items that touch their skin. This includes bath/water play, getting their nails trimmed and hair brushed, touching different sensory rich objects, being messy and receiving hugs. When children have a tactile sensitivity, their skin reactors are feeling the object more intensely. According to this article:
The tactile system, or sense of touch, refers to the information we receive though the receptors in our skin. It alerts us to pain and temperature and helps us discriminate the properties of things we come in contact with, i.e. texture, shape, size, and weight. From very early on in development this sense plays a crucial role in helping us gain awareness of our own bodies and understand everything we come in contact with. And how frustrating it must be to learn new skills when you can’t adequately feel the objects you’re using!”
This area describes how children move within their environment, including if they enjoy movement activities, seem accident prone or clumsy, seek out spinning and/or preferring to walking on their tip toes. Movement is how our bodies know where we are in space and how we respond to a variety of movement activities. This article explains movement seekers as “someone who has a high threshold for vestibular input. The vestibular system is housed in our inner ear, and is responsible for sending messages to our brain about the position and movement of our head. The vestibular system is activated anytime our head is tilted, upside-down, inverted, if we spin, if we run fast or run slow, when we’re on a swing or going down a slide.
We need vestibular activation and an efficient vestibular processing system in order to maintain an upright position, feel balanced, have a full sense of our body in space and focus. Some people have low thresholds, in which they perceive vestibular activation at much higher rates (e.g. hypersensitive to movement). Others have high thresholds, which means that they need more intense, more frequent and longer duration of movement in order to register it and activate their vestibular system.”
This are addresses how children respond to new foods and different textures, if they tend to overstuff their mouths, how they control chewing/swallowing foods and liquids and if they tolerate their teeth being brushed. Our oral system is based on how our sensory receptors in our mouth recognize what is in our mouth. Some people have increased sensitivities for foods while others have decreased sensitivities to food. There are differences and optional interventions explained in this article:
“We have sensory receptors in our mouths that allow us to recognize information about temperature, texture (e.g. smooth like yogurt, hard like chips/pretzels, or a mixture of textures like cereal with milk), and taste (e.g. sweet, salty, bitter, sour). They may be over responsive or have increased sensitivity to oral input, causing them to be resistant to oral sensory experiences like trying new foods or brushing their teeth.
Other children may have decreased sensitivity to oral sensory input and therefore seek more oral input in order to help them organize their behavior and pay attention. Our brains receive further proprioceptive input from the joint of the jaw as we bite and chew on foods with different types of resistance (e.g. a crunchy carrot or a chewy sweet/gum). Oral sensory processing also contributes to the way we move our mouths, control our saliva, and produce sounds for clear speech.”
This area describes children’s behaviors such as how frequently they have meltdowns, if they are clingy, how hard it is to redirect them, if they are upset in new surrounds and how hard it is to help them calm down. Teaching children how to calm down using a variety of sensory input, will benefit every child. Soothing Sammy provides opportunity for a child to create their own behavior support tool that is tailored to their specific needs. Weather they respond better to auditory, visual, tactile or others, Sammy the Golden Dog can make redirection to a calm down corner a positive experience for the child and the adult.
Creating a sensory diet is one of the most important ways to support children with any type of sensory difference. These sensory diet cards is a must have resource if you are working with or have a child with a sensory need.
If you are concerned about your child, you can contact an Early Intervention provider to complete an evaluation from the day they are born all the way until they turn three years old.
Early intervention occupational therapy services support children in all areas of sensory needs, and can help caregivers create sensory diets that will help children in a variety of situations. Visual, tactile, auditory, oral and movement interventions that are supported in a controlled environment, can help every child learn how to adapt and respond to different situations and environments.
Jeana Kinne is a veteran preschool teacher and director. She has over 20 years of experience in the Early Childhood Education field. Her Bachelors Degree is in Child Development and her Masters Degree is in Early Childhood Education. She has spent over 10 years as a coach, working with Parents and Preschool Teachers, and another 10 years working with infants and toddlers with special needs. She is also the author of the “Sammy the Golden Dog” series, teaching children important skills through play.