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Making Sense of Your Child's Sensory Preferences

We all have sensory preferences. Some people like to listen to music loudly, whereas others may prefer the quiet. Some people gravitate towards loose clothing while some prefer fitted clothing. Some thrive in groups of people and yet others prefer more intimate interactions. Essentially when we think about our senses – touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste we are talking about how we take in information from the environment process it and use it.

Children also have sensory preferences and understanding them can help to understand a child’s behavior or reactions to the environment or their surroundings. Further with this understanding, it can help to pave the way to improving your child’s regulation, and engagement which are foundations to communication development.

Sensory Integration

Sensory integration is the normal neurological process of organizing sensation for effective response in our daily life. We use sensations to survive, to satisfy our needs, to learn, and to function normally. Sensory integration is a normal procedure in which our brain receives sensory information from the surrounding environment, by the way of our sensory organs (i.e., eyes, ears, skin, etc.), and interprets these sensory experiences. This integration allows us to respond automatically, efficiently, and comfortably in response to the specific sensory input we receive.

Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Preferences

People typically fall into 2 different sensory profiles, which include over-sensitive or under-sensitive. However, some may have a combination of both or a mixed sensitivity, meaning that while they may crave certain sensations, they may also avoid others.

Making the Most of Your Child’s Sensory Needs

Once you know your child’s sensory preferences you will know how to best support her emotionally and physically. The supports that you offer can help to optimize her engagement and learning. They should target increasing their level of alertness, or arousal, or reducing levels of arousal to aid in overall regulation. The goal of using sensory strategies is that they will help to reach an optimal level of arousal to improve overall engagement regulation and therefore optimize learning.

Heavy Work

Heavy work can also help with sensory seeking behaviors and can have a calming effect. Because heavy work stimulates our proprioceptive system, our sense of body awareness, our muscle and joints are stimulated during these types of activities. Children who enjoy jumping and crashing into things may benefit from extra proprioceptive input. Heavy work can be provided in an organized way that allows your child to receive the input that they crave.

There are many ways to include heavy work into a child’s daily routine. Examples of heavy work include:

  • Wheel barrel walks

  • Crawling

  • Wall push-ups

  • Pushing or pulling a box or laundry basket filled with items

  • Pushing a shopping cart at the market filled with items

  • Climbing stairs or play structures at the park

  • Yard work such as raking, digging, pushing a wheel barrel or pulling weeds

  • Household chores like vacuuming, carrying bags of groceries or taking out the garbage

  • Jumping on a trampoline

  • Crashing into couch cushions or pillows

  • Chewing resistive or crunchy foods

Sensory Alerting

Sensory alerting activities help to “wake-up” or arouse those that exhibit under-responsive behaviors. Examples of ways to include sensory alerting activities into a child’s daily routine include the following:

  • Arrhythmical swinging

  • Play with textures this can include dry rice and/or beans, Play-Doh, water or shaving cream

  • Playing with toys that have bright lights or play music

  • Eating crunchy foods

  • Brushing teeth with an electric toothbrush

  • Tickles

  • Drinking thick liquids through a straw

  • Tight squeezes or hugs

  • Listening to loud music

  • Jumping Jacks or dancing

Every child is different and what may work for one may not work for another. The aim of therapy focusing on a sensory integrative framework is to address the underlying sensory processing differences that may be impacting functional participation for a child. It can support improvement in regulation, social skills, language and participation in daily routines and activities.

If you have concerns about your child’s sensory processing an assessment by an occupational therapist is recommended.


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