An Effective Sensory Diet For Your Homeschool: The Over-Responders

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.

Many blessings,


8 thoughts on “An Effective Sensory Diet For Your Homeschool: The Over-Responders

  1. Such important suggestions for sensory integration. Thank you. Just want to say that our experience has been that the “sensory-avoiding” child isn’t always deficient in social skills, and may be highly caring and sensitive to other people to the extent that they easily read other people’s emotional state and defer to them out of empathy. This is a good thing, perhaps a great thing in a society tilted too far in the direction of selfishness but sensitive kids can take it too far. It’s valuable to help our children (and ourselves) see the value in this empathy but also find boundaries. As you note, being aware of the body is pivotal. Emotionally sensitive children, who are often in my experience also sensory avoiding, need to learn how to “go into” their body-based intuition to access the wisdom there. They may learn that their own bodies are talking to them. A clamped feeling in the throat may be their own indicator to speak up for themselves. An uneasy tummy may be an indicator that this situation isn’t safe or this movie is too scary. A tight neck may let them know that they need some time to retreat and center rather than push themselves.

    • Laura, yes, I have seen that as well. Of course, in a course of therapists there will be more talk of those children whom are referred for therapy, and probably the social issues getting them there are beyond sensitivity, but this important to note and I am glad you shared your experience. I think for those children, as you noted, boundaries are an issue, this sense of who I am and who you are and the boundaries can be blurry for these children. This, to me, especially relates back to the sense of touch and those lower senses of balance, sense of well being, etc. Touch is really our first lesson in distinguishing where I end, where something else begins…and I think this is how touch ends up being related to social difficulties later on…the child is still experiencing where do I end? Where does that other person begin? And we must help these children, I think by really looking hard at getting them in their bodies, and yes, being aware, although I would say the awareness techniques to me work better with children around nine who have a greater sense of self at that point….

      Thank you so much for reading, many blessings to you!

  2. This is a great post. I have gotten back into my spectrum reading since Sariah was born, it wouldn’t surprise me if we walk this road again with the events surrounding her birth, but so far so good!

    I also agree with you, we have to help these kids learn how to live socially. We have been hard at work with Harry for so many years and there are many days now when I forget he’s on the spectrum – then he belts out some crazy fact that only he would remember! It is a labor of love but I wouldn’t trade any second of the last 14 1/2 years!

    Blessings! ~ Melisa

  3. Pingback: Clothes For Children Who Have Challenges With Sensory Processing | The Parenting Passageway

  4. It’s a pity that I didn’t find your blog 3 years ago. My child would probably be “normal” by now if someone knows what normal is. We noticed that the child had some serious issues with textures since he was 1 year old but we didn’t know that it was a “real” problem and the specialists sure didn’t either. He went as far as not to crawl, get up, roll, play with toys, eat solids…. if that meant not to touch anything.The result was that with 3 years he couldn’t stand by himself, talk, grasp anything, sleep properly … and the most worrying of all understand us and still the professionals didn’t know what was wrong with him. Thank God or luck or our endless effort searching for ways of helping him I found information in the web about this problem and occupational therapy and thanks again to I don’t know what we had a great professional from Canada in our town ( 50 kms away from our house but near enough if you ask me). The child was 3 years and 4 months when we started and two months later he literally hugged a Sponge Bob stuffed toy as tall as he and I haven’t cried and laughed more at the same time in my 40 years. Of course I bought it and he still sleeps with it. We still have a very long way to go but our 5 years old is just a different child if only because he is always trying to do new things and laughs because of every little discovery during the day. The last week has been Heaven because he has spent hours playing on the floor with our little dog and chasing her (God bless her for her patience). BUT shockingly enough (or not so much) we still have to convince the school that this therapy is serious, not just something to waste our money on. We’ve already given up. Social Security and schools in Spain are free but when it comes to “special” children we need all the money we can get to take care of them. I’ve never spent my savings in a better thing but I can’t help but feel for the parents who don’t have the money to do it or the knowledge or the initiative. Sorry for venting here and for my poor english and thanks to you and people like you who spend their time sharing your knowledge, I’ll never be able to thank you enough.

    • Hello to my new reader! I wish we could have connected years ago as well, the story of your son’s journey was heartbreaking to me. So nice to hear of the help you finally found and the progress he has made! And by the way, your English is fabulous!

      I am so very sorry that you and your son have gone through such a thing with not a lot of help until much later….sensory challenges are so difficult! It is amazing to think that one would have to convince the schools of anything with sensory challenges, because how can a child learn when the basic foundations of sensory processing are not there to build upon, but you are right, for so many parents, it is a struggle to deal with the school system. I am so glad you are here and one of my readers!

      I think you will find many like minded parents. There are also some wonderful forums for parents of children challenged by sensory processing that have just happened within the past few years. I hope you find compassion and lots of skilled help, and most of all, moments of joy on this journey. I smiled when I thought of your little boy chasing your dog around, such a pocket of joy and such a testament to great progress made!

      Many, many blessings to you, and happy holidays!

  5. I have a 4 year old was just diagnosed in preschool as having Sensory Processing Disorder. I suspected this but was not sure to what degree it effects him. When they first came to me and suggested an IEP assessment I began researching and that is when I found your blog. It has been tremendously helpful and has changed the dynamic in our home and given me the resources I needed to be a good parent. I am however terribly scared that his issues with auditory, visual, organizational processing will not get better despite all OT and my own attempts. I am afraid he will be unable to lead a “normal”, happy, successful life. Do you have any knowledge about children’s abilities to “overcome” SPD. I think his issues are moderate and I have seen many improvements. I also am always unsure about what parts of his behavior are “normal” 4 year old boy stuff and what is SPD stuff. Waldorf seems much more flexible in its understanding of childhood behaviors. He gets so involved in fantasy play, shifts the game he is playing frequently (as in the characters are doing something then doing something else then something else), uses nonsense talk/play with words repetitively (“glog, glog, glog”) or silly language which I sometimes think is self soothe or just fun. He flaps which I never thought about until his teachers brought it up but I guess this is self soothe and can happen with SPD thought people often think autism. He tested high average cognitively but the flapping freaks me out a little. He often gets upset about doing things he doesn’t want to do and transitions especially at school. (They do rotate a lot into the 3 hours he is at school.) How much of that seems with in the average range? He does have an OT whom I am planning on asking these questions to and working closely with but I thought I’d ask you because I respect your thoughts and feel you are very knowledgeable.
    Thank You,

    • Dear M
      First of all, I am so glad you found this blog and I am so happy it sounds as if you have a good therapist involved. It is sometimes hard to tease out what is what, isn’t it? I think keep coming back to the posts on normal development as a barometer. It is difficult not to feel worried about everything, isn’t it? Does he also have a developmental pediatrician following him? Has he had a speech evaluation or does that not seem warranted? Sometimes these things can be a big source of help, and others have found success with varying degrees of alternative medicines and therapies along with traditional therapy. I am sorry I cannot answer your questions more specifically since I am not there to evaluate your son in person, and also since I am a physical therapist, I think I would refer/defer to my occupational and speech therapist colleagues as well for any significant sensory issues and we would be working as a team. I have known parents whose children with sensory issues are doing remarkably well after therapy and home programs, and I have known children who know how to better regulate themselves and how they feel and what they need as they grow as a result of therapy. Some children, when they hit new developmental phases, seem to need a therapy check in and tune up so to speak to adjust things. So far as I can tell by researching PubMed or other sensory websites, there don’t seem to be any studies showing outcomes of children with sensory processing disorder in adulthood, although there are articles about adults who have SPD. I think this may be because sensory processing disorder often is part of other diagnoses in childhood. So, I feel badly I don’t have anything more positive to say in that regard or to alleviate your fears about your child being able to function in the adult world. But do not give up or feel defeated. Four is really little, and you are doing everything you can do right now, in this moment. There are parents whose children are doing quite well as they grow due to their parents having a positive attitude and really doing the work the child needs. Many of the tools of Waldorf Education are helpful in the home environment for children with sensory processing disorder.
      One thing I can recommend is to keep digging as to the latest research and techniques. One of the many sensory related courses I have attended was by Kathleen Morris, who is in TX, and has this wonderful magazine: I am headed to a Brain Gym course this month and hope to have some things to report from that as well, so stay tuned and thanks for writing.


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