Higher or Lower? Understanding your child’s sensory processing tendencies

In a previous post, we’ve talked a little about three of the 7 sensory systems that your child uses to help make sense of their bodies, learn to move and have appropriate emotional responses to their environment.

These posts are focussing on the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems, because they are so fundamental to the function of all the other sensory systems, and all the other learning that your child will do.

Let’s talk a little more about the ways in which children can experience their sensory worlds differently.

Your brain is a clever organ, that, beyond just taking information in and then sending instructions out to the body, also regulates the flow of information coming in so that it is not overwhelmed, but also not understimulated.  This process is known as modulation.

For example, when you are reading this, you are getting information from your body to let you know whether you are standing or sitting.  If your sensory processing is well modulated, you will get ‘just enough’ information about your position- not so little that you have to keep focussing on where your body is and are unable to read- not so much that you are in constant fear of falling down, and stressed by the small changes in body position that we all make to stay upright.

People with sensory modulation difficulties have difficulty getting a ‘just right’ amount of information.  They may get too much or too little.  This is extremely distracting and can be distressing.  These sensory processing tendencies can interfere with all the other things they want to do, to the extent that it can interfere with a child’s development.

So- is there an easy way to tell if your child is getting enough sensory information?  Sadly, it is not that simple.

Children will seek to adapt their own behaviour to their sensory processing tendencies. A useful way of looking at this is Winnie Dunn’s 1997 model of sensory processing:

Dunn's Model of Sensory Processing (1997)

If a child has a high neurological threshold, it means that they need lots of sensory input to happen before the message about the sensation gets passed to the brain.  They would not notice a sensation very easily. Some children would take a passive response to this- the information is not getting through, and they don’t do anything to adapt to this situation. A child would need lots more sensory stimulus than normal to show a response.

Some children who have a high neurological threshold adapt to this need for more sensory information with an active response.  They are ‘sensory seekers’- moving more, cramming more into their mouths etc.

If a child has a low neurological threshold, then they only need very little sensory information to pass on sensory information to the brain.  As a result, these children are likely to be easily overwhelmed.  Again, they can have a passive response to this- these children may look like they are not doing much, but in fact they may be completely overloaded and unable to escape.

Active responses to a low sensory threshold would involve behaviours such as trying to avoid or escape sensation (for example, avoiding getting their hands dirty, becoming distressed at having to have socks on).

Passive responses to either under or over-sensitivity can look similar on the surface.  Active responses to under or over-sensitivity can look similar.   But our approaches to supporting that child will be quite different. In addition, your child might be over-sensitive to some types of sensation, but under-sensitive to others.   This is why it is important to get Professional help if you suspect a sensory modulation difficulty.

For a really great video on this, look for ‘A Child’s View of Sensory Processing’ on Youtube.

Occupational Therapists (OT) are traditionally associated with sensory assessment.  Not all OTs are trained in sensory assessment, and so it is important to have access to an OT who has the appropriate qualifications.  More and more though, other therapies such as Speech and Language Therapy and Physiotherapy are also training in this area, as sensory processing has such a wide impact on all areas of development.

In our next post, we’ll be looking in a bit more detail at the tactile system, including the kinds of behaviours that might be suggestive of under- or over- sensitivity in this system.

Posts from Find the Key Speech Therapy are intended for information.  They are not intended to, and cannot take the place of advice from an appropriately qualified Speech and Language Therapist who knows you child.  Find the Key Speech Therapy does not take responsibility for the use of any advice without appropriate professional guidance. 



Things We Love #3 The Kids’ Guide to Staying Awesome and in Control

Today’s ‘Thing We Love’ is something for Parents (or Professionals) with children with sensory needs, or difficulty with regulating emotion for other reasons.

It gives children and adults great ways of describing how their bodies feel (like ‘fast and wiggly’), and then lots of really simple activities you and your child can try to self-regulate when you feel that way.

I’ve used this book in lots of ways in feeding therapy, both individually and in small groups. I think it could be such a great basis for talk about self-regulation in the classroom too.

It is always off the shelf and being used in the Speech Therapy office.

The Author, Lauren Brukner, has two other books on similar themes too.

A great resource that’s really practical.

Sitting at the table when your child needs to move

So many of the children I see with feeding struggles have sensory needs, either with or without other developmental and physical issues.  Sensory issues are a big topic, and not to be covered in just one post.

So, this being a feeding-related blog, I thought I would start with helping your child with sensory processing differences to be still at the table.

I spend a lot of time at work talking to people about how children need to be able to be still and stable in order to progress their feeding skills.  And that’s true (see here for some tips on adding stability to your child’s seating).  But a key part of developing stability is getting enough movement.  And some of our children just need to move more than others!

So, if we want our child to be still at the table long enough for them to explore food, we might need to adapt our seating a little to give them what they need.

  • Add wobble- chair adaptations that let your child stay on the move are great.  They can range from cushions and wobble cushions of various kinds, to whole different pieces of seating that your child needs to stay moving on to stay upright. Adding wobble will give your child additional vestibular and proprioceptive input.             Movin' Sit Wedge Cushion - Senior                  Wobble cushion blue                          Kore Wobble Stool-Junior 36cm-Black
  • Add weight/resistance/deep tactile pressure- Adaptations that add weight will give your child deep tactile pressure (which has a tendency to be calming), and add resistance (which will add proprioception, also generally calming and supportive of improved body awareness).  Wearing a weighted rucksack, sitting with a weighted cushion on your lap, sitting with a weighted shoulder bag on to eat are all examples of this.  You could also try sitting in a bean bag chair (that will give you more feedback through your whole body).
  • Weighted Shoulder Wrap                                     Weighted Lap Pads


  • Add movement – Adapting chairs to allow fidgeting with your feet is also a popular thing to try- various fidget bands exist that you can fit to your chair.  You could also experiment with giving the child something to fidget with with their hands.

Squishy Mesh Ball Fidget Toy

There are lots of things we can do more directly to help our children with sensory difficulties to widen their range of foods, and to approach foods with less anxiety, and I’ll be talking about these in other posts.  But it’s important to think about whether we have helped them to get their bodies into a calm and receptive state before we ask them to push themselves and try new things with foods.

All photos in this post are courtesy of sensorydirect.com.  Thankyou to them!

Posts from Find the Key Speech Therapy are intended for information.  They are not intended to, and cannot, take the place of advice from an appropriately qualified Speech and Language Therapist who knows you child.  Find the Key Speech Therapy does not take responsibility for the use of any advice without appropriate professional guidance. 

Eating sense-ably

Eating is a massively sensory-rich activity.  So many of the eating and drinking challenges I work with every day have a sensory component.

So why would sensory processing have an impact on eating?

Your body takes in and processes (at least 7) types of sensation:

  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Vestibular
  • Proprioception

As a feeding therapist, I spend a lot of time talking about the last three in particular (and not quite as much as you would think on taste and smell).

Your brain gets its understanding of where your body is in space by taking in information from your skin (tactile system), the inner ear (vestibular system) and your muscles and joints (proprioception).  It then integrates all the information so that it gets enough information to stay upright, move around and plan what it needs to do, but not so much that it is completely overwhelmed by everything going on in the body.

All this information goes via your emotional brain centres too, so that your brain can react appropriately to a stimulus on an emotional level.  So if something rubs up against you in a dark alley, you will take appropriate action and not just fail to notice.

If the brain is not getting enough information from the body, then a child is likely to be very distracted by trying to get more of the information it needs.  Not understanding where your body is might make you anxious, rigid or controlling.  When food approaches you, you may be easily overwhelmed by the sensations that it brings, since you don’t have a clear sense of where your mouth is, or how to move food around in it.

A child who is getting too much information from their environment and their body might be unable to explore food because they are so overwhelmed.

All this can look like a lot of confusing behaviour to a Parent.

Over a few posts, we’re going to work our way through the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile sensory systems, and have a think about how they influence our eating in more detail (and more importantly, how we can help).

If you’ve got sensory-related eating questions, then please comment below and I’ll try to address them.

Posts from Find the Key Speech Therapy are intended for information.  They are not intended to, and cannot, take the place of advice from an appropriately qualified Speech and Language Therapist who knows your child.  Find the Key Speech Therapy does not take responsibility for the use of any advice without appropriate professional guidance.