An Effective Sensory Diet For Your Homeschool: The “Under- Responsive” Child

Some children are under-responsive to sensory stimuli.  They essentially can end up functioning in one of two ways:  either being a “sensory seeker” (you know, those children who are rather bouncing off the walls) or being sort of “bumps on the log”, (essentially because it takes such a high input of sensory input to get them to a normal state that they give up!) but share at their core challenges in processing sensory stimuli.

These children typically crave touch, sometimes repeatedly touching objects.  They can be unaware of light touch or unaware that they are messy or dirty or have a runny nose, and have a very high pain threshold.  They may mouth objects or even be self-abusive.  They often have poor fine motor skills.

Sometimes children who are under-responsive to sensory stimuli have difficulty with auditory processing, say “What?” a lot because they are under-responsive to verbal cues, have a hard time localizing sound, and they like to have any recorded music or media LOUD.

In the department of vision, these children often have poor visual perceptive skills, difficulty discriminating shapes or letters, lose their place when they read or when they are copying something and essentially fatigue with school work.   They often like lots of seasoning on food, have poor odor discrimination, and such.

Remember, this is just a very, very general picture and if you think your child is challenged by sensory modulation, please do find a therapist who specializes in sensory integration to provide a more personalized approach.

Proprioceptive activity is still a much-needed ally here, which includes heavy work. Vestibular work such as spinning can cause seizures due to variations in light, and in general must be approached cautiously as spinning and other forms of vestibular work can be calming or alerting, depending upon many variables.

Some children who are sensory seekers have a difficult time really getting their cups filled during traditional school.  I have heard colleagues speak of bringing sensory seeking children into a self-contained therapy classroom (padded floors, padded walls and a ton of swings, platform swings) and just letting this child “go” to see how long, without form and just access to the equipment, it would take this child to calm down and be attentive to a task.  By some reports, it could take the child an hour and a half to two hours to “calm down”.  I personally do not think this is very valid in many ways, because I think energy without form is going to be just this free for all of energy, but it is interesting to see how much input these children’s bodies really need.

There have been some interesting studies regarding the use of sensory input to help children focus in the classroom. I am not endorsing any of these per se, but just passing them on for your own review:

1.  Metronome use to aid in concentration.  For more information you can see and for further information about using music to help the brain, see   Again, I think it is important for children to be able to have complete periods of stillness and silence, but I can understand how this is used in a more traditional setting at points.

2.  Encourage the child to have a water bottle with a straw to suck on during work, allow gum chewing or mints during school work.  (I personally do allow all of the above in our school, and little mint lifesaver type candy is a huge motivator for my own under responsive child.)  There have been actual studies documenting just chewing gum during testing leads to higher test scores.  Seriously.

3.  Minimize visual stimuli in the classroom.  Again, I wonder where the rainbow, garishly bright preschool classrooms originated?  Nothing has shown them to be helpful to learning, and in fact, are detrimental.  Waldorf Early Years classrooms with their soft walls, natural lighting , natural fabrics and textures fit the bill for learning.

4.  Alternative seating equipment – you can find these all over on Amazon and other places.  Some therapists use therapy balls in place of chairs, some use discs or air wedges.

5. Providing frequent breaks – we KNOW our kindergarteners need to have breaks about every 15 minutes for optimal learning, and adults themselves need breaks every 50 minutes for optimal learning.  In an age where recess is being cut and play is considered an extra, no wonder our children’s senses are under complete assault.

6.  Some children with under-responsiveness do well with a weighted lap pad,  or other weighted garments.  That usually is figured out by a therapist who can supervise such a thing.

Don’t forget your big guns of sensory input – hard, sweaty work; hard work; trampolines, climbing toys, mats for tumbling, and non-competitive extra-curricular activities such as gymnastics, karate, swimming, horse back riding are all recommended traditionally by therapists. I would add to this list BEING OUTSIDE – stomping through streams, crossing logs, hiking up and down grades, rolling through meadows of tall grass, being barefoot in the sand.

I would love to hear your stories about your children who have under-responsive sensory systems and how you have met those needs.

Many blessings,


23 thoughts on “An Effective Sensory Diet For Your Homeschool: The “Under- Responsive” Child

  1. Our 5yo daughter has sensory processing disorder (at one point was diagnosed with PDD-NOS) and is a sensory-seeker. Summer is her best season. We spend every day we possibly can at the beach. The sensory input of the sand and the water feeds her like nothing else can. During the rest of the year, outside time, climbing, being barefoot and rolling in the grass are always great cures for her sensory-seeking behaviors. As soon as I notice her getting “outside her own control” we drop everything and head outside. The outdoors can be very healing.

  2. Our child is under-responsive and diagnosed with PDD-NOS. We currently do a lot of outside time in the morning to start the day…tromping along the trail in the woods where she has to walk over sticks and trees and such. We built a tire swing in our basement where she drapes over it on her belly and “flies like a bird” all around. She chooses how long to go on the swing; I don’t touch it. She also will lay on her belly on a “rollie board” while I pull her around…she holds onto a therapy band while I pull her over a smooth floor (the garage is nice for this). As she gets older, she’ll be able to paddle herself to find puzzle pieces we scatter all over the place. Her OT loves activities like that because they provide DEEP PRESSURE input into the place it’s most needed: The torso/belly. I guess it provides the longest relief and best “bang for the buck” in terms of activity. We also do games where we “follow the leader” and we pretend to go through the house…first as a “hopping bunny” or “bird” and then we “crawl like caterpillars” and then we “gallop like horses” and then “buzz like bees.” She loves following me (she’s only 2 and a half) and loves doing the movements. All the stomping and jumping in her joints gives nice input and it keeps her engaged for a while. We also like play dough for squeezing and kneading as a lead-in to fine motor/concentrated activities where she has to sit (such as puzzles). We have found a daily rhythm of an activity together alternating with free-play time with just herself works out nicely and she is much more calm and happy this way. She gets overstimulated SO easily, so a quiet home life has been essential to her progress. No TV or media time; even a little bit can send her into a spin. The same is true for too much singing/music time. These are the things that are bringing us balance these days; thanks for letting us share!

  3. we just started more structured homeschooling this year with my son who is 6 and we’re doing 1st grade. He is so “mouthy” – reminds me of ponies I used to ride, that it what we called it then, when the horse has to gum everything in front of him to see what it is. Hands, pencils, toys, etc – has always been this way. He is on the bouncing-off-the-walls side, and does say “what?” constantly – which reminds me of my Dad, who does the same thing (I thought it was a choleric characteristic – just not listening to others – they both share that). Intellectually and emotionally he is normal for his age… definitely sitting is tough, but it is for a lot of boys at this age…

    we live on a farm and spend a ton of time in nature, so I do feel it’s also good for him to learn to sit. He has excellent motor coordination. Are there other suggestions you would use – besides just letting him fidget, or actually giving him something to fidget with, while he’s trying to think/read/write etc.? Am I understanding you right, in other words that instead of trying to ask him to stop touching/mouthing/fidgeting, I should just give him something appropriate to express those needs with? Thanks, in advance for your response.

    • Eve,
      Hard to say! I think both answers could be right, which is the hard thing about the Internet…I have heard of many six year old boys who are mouthy, it seems like it could be a phase, yet I don’t know your son in person, so I cannot really say that, can I? I wonder if just a simple gum/mint would focus him enough without going to fidget things? I think if it was a true sensory modulation issue an OT might suggest something to fidget with, yet in Waldorf Education I think we would also view it as important to be able to sit still etc. without that…. So two sort of different perspectives that you may be able to find the balance with by supplying some simple mints or gum or even one of those little discs on a seat. I do know the Waldorf school in our city does use those little sitting discs for some children. Perhaps those areas would be a moderate approach, but again, because this is the Internet, I can’t say specifically about any child …. It does certainly sound like he is balanced in terms of the amount of physical exertion and outside time he is getting!
      I suppose the other compromise might be to do something with the hands before or after with modeling…Do take a peek at and see if any of those little movement breaks and blocks resonate with you. And do keep in mind small children do need to move about every 20 minutes or so in first grade…

      Hope that isn’t too vague, trying to help you think through some options….

    • Catherine,
      I was thinking too, things like proprioceptive work is helpful no matter what. With a child with seizures, spinning and light/visual input is something to carefully regulate – your local, in life medical team could probably give you more suggestions…


    • Catherine – yes, sometimes flashing and/or artificial lights can trigger seizures — spinning, because of the variations in light that happen when you spin can also trigger seizures in some children as well…

    • I received an email from the Boys Alive website and I thought it may be of interest to you…… from Kelley King, author of Strategies for Teaching Boys & Girls.

      In Week 3 of Discover HIS World, the Boys Alive! On-line Event,
      Kelley told us how increasing blood flow to his brain and engaging his interests and need to move will empower his learning:

      Clipboards – Use a clipboard so he can move his work away from the kitchen table. Let him be under the table!
      Stand up! – Some boys like to stand when working – you can invert a cardboard box on a table to make it the right height, or use the kitchen counter or a book shelf.
      Toss a ball! – Quiz him while tossing a ball. When you put an object it motion it stimulates the visual-spatial centers, which is often the predominant part of the male brain – so you’re engaging MORE learning potential!
      Chew gum! – Yep, it stimulates the jaw and facial muscles, again increasing blood flow and especially helps boys listen more attentively
      Post-it notes – If he’s trying to learn the parts of a cell (for example) have him post the parts around the room and then walk to them to describe – movement stimulates his brain, keeps him engaged!
      Move! Take it for a walk! Conversational recaps of lessons help him integrate information and store it in new ways for ready access later. Shoot hoops – he can take a shot when he gets the correct answer.

  4. Carrie, this is very interesting. My daughter Mara (who has epileptic absences), clearly has lots of points of the under-sensitive AND of the over-sensitive. Is this common?
    For instance, she can be super cold and not feel anything, she wears super scatchy things and it doesn’t bother her, etc. but she has a very developped sense of smell and sight and other components from the over sensitive. Have you seen this before?

    • Catherine,
      Yes! Not to over generalize, but many times children with autism, for example, are “over” to most areas, but “under” in terms of vestibular input (hence, why many autistic children seem to love to spin!). I don’t think it is that uncommon to have traits of both always, I wonder what a therapist who specializes in sensory integration would say though.

  5. Hi Carrie,
    As I mentioned in a previous comment my son has SPD. He is 6 like one of your other readers mentioned. He is definitely a sensory seeker and sometimes just needs to do a lot of banging. Straight from Waldorf I got him his own hammer and a bunch of wood and when he is being particularly “noisy” I send him outside to hammer nails into the wood. He can do that sometimes for an hour. That way he gets that joint compression that he so desperately needs. To that end, sometimes I just do joint compressions with him during quiet time. I hold just above and below a joint, ie elbow and push gently together. Also during quiet time we do “Wilbarger therapeutic brushing” I don’t know if your book covers that, but before we started that technique my son couldn’t settle down enough to sleep, after the first night he fell asleep at his bedtime! This is of course something you must do with the aid of a therapist.
    Also we have a platform swing in our basement which has truly been our saving grace. He needs to swing at least 10 minutes a day, when he was younger it was even longer. So we do make up a story time while he’s swinging. It’s become a really fun time for us.
    And then on those days when I just don’t know what to do with him, I send him outside to ride his bike, this is another activity that was highly recommended by my OT it impacts a lot of joints and incorporates heavy work. He can ride up and down the driveway for quite a while and then comes back in the house ready to get back to the family.
    Oh yes, and we have 3 work out size trampolines in the house! So basically anytime he feels the need he can jump and jump and jump and jump. It’s a great alternative to the space a large trampoline takes up.

    I say you have to keep on trying things to see what works. I find that when something works it works right away. And there are so many things out there to try. One of the best pieces of advice I got was to find something your child likes to do already and build on that. When my son was young he loved to bang on the table, a lot, of course that got old pretty fast. He always loved music, so first we got him a drum, then later a drum set and then when we discovered he loved to build we got the wood, hammer and nails.

    My last piece of advice is to educate yourself if you believe your child is effected by any of these things. You are your child’s best and only advocate. Sensory issues can be debilitating if left alone but can actually become an asset if you help your child learn to integrate. We had a bumpy road in the beginning, but now I cherish those little things about him that make him so much different than everyone else!

    • yes – hammering nails into wood. My son is crazy for hammering anything, breaks up acorns, hickory nuts, black walnuts, and of course nails into wood. It never ocurred to me that it could be a sensory issue – but he loves to be grabbed, squeezed, thrown, etc. Loves the bike too. I don’t see it as a problem… but these posts have helped me understand it better. Thanks.

  6. Thank you, I have been waiting for this post! Your other recent sensory post was so interesting I was really looking forward to reading something more pertinent to my own sensory seeking 5 year old.
    Catherine, my daughter also has a lot of under sensitive traits combined with the most amazing sense of smell I’ve ever encountered. Seriously, she can smell fresh house paint two blocks away and having a “Mama’s secret chocolate stash” is a lost cause – she is like a bloodhound. She does say “what?” a lot yet seems to have very sensitive hearing. Interesting.
    Carrie, I’m intrigued by the sitting disks you mentioned. I can’t really imagine what they are, could you describe them further?

  7. This sounds exactly like my 8 year old son. We have never had him evaluated but he literally bounces off the walls. He can run back and forth in a room, humming, for 30 minutes or so, many times a day, oblivious to what is going on around him. Sometimes he injures himself banging into a wall or swinging his hand too hard into a wall. He also tires easily doing written work and then we have a hard time getting back into it. He received a small trampoline for his birthday and loves it. He also loves swinging. The funny thing is, he never runs back and forth when we are outside.
    I have wondered if we should have him evaluated but I am afraid of kids being over diagnosed with disorders these days.

  8. thanks carrie for allowing the conversation here. my 2 1/2 years old son is both. we have worked with an OT due to a feeding issue and now that his poor feeding has been resolved, we are working on sensory.

    i have always said to doctors that he is like a ball in a pinball machine since 8 1/2 months, when he started walking. i felt as through he never had an off switch and he hardly ever would sit. he has always has been light on his feet, clumsy and reckless and a very low attention span, but all is improving. but now, he shows signs of both and we seem to go back and forth between the two throughout the day. i am now seeking out an OT, who specializes in sensory.

    getting outside is the best but if we are inside, i feel that we have established some techniques for specific times/ activities (reading books with pressure on bottom of feet, established bedtime routine with soothing bath, utilizing play dough or dried bean play after he eats dinner so that I have time to eat) but throughout the day i feel like i am putting out fires and just responding, instead of being able to steer the ship so to say.

  9. SO much cool information here. I knew shortly after we brought our daughter home from Russia that she was a little ball of energy. Although she was not walking when we brought her home at 19 months (that’s not unusual for internationally adopted children coming from orphanages), within six weeks she was walking and she hasn’t stopped moving since! At first we noticed that when she was really upset or really tired, she would rock herself side-to side. We did not let her watch any television until we’d had her home nearly six months…then it was just a little bit each day-like a Baby Einstien video or something. However, we noticed that when she did watch tv, she would never sit-she would always stand-and sway back and forth. As she got older, the swaying became more frequent. Today, when she is watching tv, listening to music, even playing a video game or using the Tag books, she sways (rocks). She sways when she is eating at the dinner table. She sways when she is sitting in the car-well, rolls her head side to side since she’s strapped in. She sways at school during story time. You get the picture. When I took her to the doctor and asked for a referral for an OT, the doctor laughed at me, told me that she likes music and it’s nothing. But, just to prove “he’s right” he wrote out a form for a neurologist. The neurologist listened to me for five minutes and told me she has SPD. I now know that she’s a sensory seeker. We are working with an OT once a week. I am her Sunday School teacher, though, and she is still having a hard time sitting still for the story and also she frequently interrupts me while I’m reading the story. I know that some of it is because I am her teacher, but I also think I need to find ways to get her to pay attention to the story and not interrupt. I will need to find a way to satisfy her cravings in a church setting. I think your ideas of weighted wrist and ankles will be a big help. I try to have Praise time before the story and I try to choose the songs with lots of motions and require a lot of energy, but it doesn’t seem to be enough for her. I’m hoping that maybe adding the weights will help a bit. Also, encouraging my husband to allow her some time at home for jumping and crashing right before he brings her to class might help too, but how long can the effects of that last? From the time he drops her off to the time of story time is about 45 minutes. Will that be enough? I’ve thought about letting her bring a fidget toy as well, but I’m wondering if she needs more activity first? I know I can get more information from the OT, but I think it also helps to talk to others. Thanks for the great information and the great comments/questions from others. When I told my doctor what the neurologist said, he’d never heard of SPD but said that “kids grow out of it, right?” We’re taking her to a new doctor now.

    • I highly recommend anyone who can find an OT who specializes in sensory, to do so, as we have seen significant growth in our son when we switched from our OT to one that has more expertise. They immediately identified some foundational skills that my son needs to work on and have been able to more substantially support our family and are preparing us for future needs such as connecting us with a behavioral optometrist.

      In my area, it is a 12 month wait to see a multidisciplinary team for a complete assessment on all his behaviors, although we are definitely sure he has SPD. My son has a combination of SDD, SMMD and SMD ( he is an over-responder to light touch,auditory and visual. he is under-responsive to proprioceptive, vestibular and deep touch. he is a sensory-seeker). We have really just begun to start pin pointing some behaviors and there are many factors to consider, referred to as “context”.

      We always try to start off every day in nature or at the park, but every day is different. If our son hears a fire engine or garbage truck first thing in the morning, with his supersonic hearing, he is very much on high alert. His engine is running high, he is reckless and these days we definitely are going to the park. Other days that his energy gets high and he is crashing into couches or jumping from the top of the couch, we take the cushions off the couch and allow him to jump while listening to drumming music. For our son, eating crunchy food, having frozen blueberries or grapes, having cold drinks, drinking yogurt or applesauce through a straw really grounds him and allows our sensory seeker to sit down for meals with us.

      I know some parents can say that x activity satisfies their child for x
      long. It comes with trial and error. One things that I read was that there is no cookie cutter for a child with SPD.

      Until then, we have been reading up on SPD. One book that I recommend is Sensational Kids, in which half of the book compares and describes a typical day with a typically developing child, an over-responder, an under-
      responder, a sensory-seeker and a dyspraxic child.

  10. Thank you for this! I have only recently found out that my son who is nearly 3 years old has SPD and he is mostly under responsive. It seems that most of the information out there is for the “sensory-seeking”, “bouncing off walls” type child and so it’s nice to read something about the other side of the coin. My son is very well natured and has a great sense of humour but he finds any social situation over stimulating and he tends to just lean up against a table like a statue. He avoids playground equipment like the plague and goes straight for sand or messy play then goes into a trance. However, he’s fine at home. He laughs, chases his sister, attempts to climb and joins in. Do you have any advice to help him to join in at play group or play dates or other social situations?

    • Jody
      It has been my experience that once children are more comfortable in their physical body, and with how they can auditorily and visually process things, their social skills start to blossom as well…so working from the physical body becomes this gateway to the social world. Also, do know that some three year olds are interested in other children, especially if they are outgoing or the third or fourth child in the family :), but some three year olds are not…Four and a half to six seems to be about the age most children really become interested in other children, and this really shows most highly in the six/seven year change. Many children this age need more of a one to one playdate of a consistent time, shorter duration, with an opening activity that is structured in order to start to develop social skills, but again, I think of this more for the four to six year olds, and probably not so much the almost three year old. Almost three is still really tiny. 🙂

      Many blessings,

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