All of us lie along the sensory spectrum in terms of our reactions, to sensory stimuli, but for some adults and children, being “over” responsive or “under” responsive predominates how they react to things, to the point where it interferes with their activities of life. So today I wanted to jump in and talk about children who are “over-responders” to sensory stimuli. These are the children you hear about who are “sensory defensive” and many times are “avoiders” as they show behaviors that are attempts to calm their nervous systems. Some children are both “over” and “under” responders. For example, children with autism may be over-responsive, for example, to visual, auditory, gustatory (taste) and tactile input but under-responsive to vestibular and proprioceptive input. Some researchers feel they can look at over-responsiveness to sensory stimuli and see this fairly early on. DeGangi looked at over-responsiveness infants as young as two weeks of age; 89 percent of the infants who tested as “over-responsive” went on to have sensory processing challenges when they were between the ages of 3 to 5.
The typical sensory-avoiding child will avoid swings, slides, heights, anything with feet off the ground. They typically are rather sedentary and clingy. They often cry with hair-washing or anything requiring a head-tilt. They may dislike “messy” play, be distressed by things such as teeth-brushing or other daily care activities, they may over-react to unexpected touch, be a picky eater and have many issues surrounding clothing (the tightness or looseness of it, the seams, etc). They may be distracted by background noise that other children seem to filter out effortlessly, and be exceedingly bothered by everyday sounds such as the toilet flushing, a vacuum cleaner running, hair-dryers. They may avoid eye contact or often cover their eyes or be extremely distracted by visual stimuli. They may rub their eyes a lot, get headaches or watery eyes. These children may be picky eaters, have difficulty with teeth-brushing or dental work, prefer bland food, and gag easily. They may be extremely bothered by smells that others don’t notice, or their food choices may be dependent upon how it smells.
What all of this leads to on a functional level is this: difficulty with social skills! They often have a hard time figuring out personal space, the facial expressions of those around them, and a hard time deciphering body language. They may also have poor attention and concentration, and become the children who are just plain fussy, angry, irritable and moody.
I cannot tell you how to “cure” this over the Internet; I would suggest if these symptoms are ranging huge for your child that you find an Occupational Therapist who specializes in sensory integration. Most therapists and sensory experts work with children such as these on calming strategies. Natural lighting, not so many bright colors in a classroom (uh, we do this naturally in Waldorf Education), avoidance of rushing the child, allowing the child to change position, providing heavy work, are all things to consider in a traditional classroom setting. The effects of ten minutes of proprioceptive work lasts for two hours, so that is a good strategy to help in calming. In the home environment, many therapists suggest establishing a rhythm (hello, Waldorf!), providing periods of calm retreat, and minimizing any screen time.
Those are general things, but a specifically-tailored program could be made for your child by an OT.
I have a few other common sense things to add in:
1. Proprioceptive work, as mentioned above, is the granddaddy of helping with this. Trampolines, therapy ball with the belly on the ball, climbing domes and climbing toys, and tumbling or crashing is important. Swimming and horse back riding can be helpful, as well as gymnastics and karate.
Other proprioceptive work includes for those birth through three: swaddling, holding, rolling, weight-bearing, pushing and pulling things, crawling, massage. For those ages three through twelve, I would think about walking, running, crawling through tunnels or obstacle courses, climbing, and the things mentioned in the paragraph above. Outside time is clearly important – hiking, going up and down grades and over different terrain, balancing across logs, etc.
2. These children do need calming strategies, but I also feel they need help in getting more into their bodies in a carefully graded way. I argued in the course I took that we cannot just look at these children and say, well, that is how they are, accommodate for their sensory challenges,and calm them down only and they will grow up to be in a profession that suits their sensory capabilities. I think that is really selling these children short. I think these children need to learn social skills as much as they can within their mental and sensory capabilities, as well as have graduated sensory input, not just calming! I don’t think that solves the Tackle it from the angle I mentioned in number one of this list, but also tackle it through:
Lots of outside play.
Play with OTHER kind children to model for them social interaction, obviously in what that child can handle.
Through the vestibular system: for birth through age three – rocking, rolling, swinging, rolling on a therapy ball belly down…The vestibular system activities can be calming or exciting, so they are important to look at what speed you are using, how long you are doing it, and how your child reacts. For those age three to twelve: spinning, bike riding, skiing, tumbling, trampoline, jumping rope.
Through touch: birth through three try deep pressure, floor time, different textures of toys, some children respond well to brushing programs and such but those would have to be modulated by a trained therapist, for those ages three to twelve: deep pressure through the hands in crawling or climbing, rice/bean sensory tables, salt dough, putty, all those modeling materials.
Calming scents: lavender.
Also, for the visual system, daily sun exposure is a must, and so is decreasing the visual busy-ness of a space. Some therapists will recommend dealing with visual defensiveness through wearing hats and sunglasses.
Here are a few websites to further learn about sensory modulation and “over responsive-ness”:
If you have any links that have been helpful to you in your journey with a child affected by sensory modulation challenges, please share them in the comment box below.