Under-Responsive / Seeking Sensory Input - Autism Awareness
Under-Responsive / Seeking Sensory Input

Under-Responsive / Seeking Sensory Input

Sensory processing involves the effective registration and accurate interpretation of sensory input from the environment and from one’s body. Information received through the senses such as touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing must be noticed, processed and then responded to appropriately. Sensory processing issues arise when there is difficulty organizing and responding to this information that comes through the senses.

There are two types of sensory processing challenges: one is oversensitivity (hypersensitivity) that leads to sensory avoiding. A person will avoid sensory input because it’s too overwhelming. The other type is undersensitivity (hyposensitivity), which causes a person to be more sensory seeking. They may look for extra sensory input, or might need support from others to register sensory input. An under-responsive person (different from a sensory seeker) may be slow to register input and have low arousal, tire easily, may appear slow to react and respond to information in their environment, can appear clumsy, and may to bump into objects.

Sensory issues are on a continuum. While people may be a combination of both of oversensitivity and undersensitivity depending on their arousal level and how well they can self-regulate, the focus of this post will be on sensory seekers and under-responsivity.

What does a sensory seeker look like?

Children who are sensory seekers will look for more sensory stimulation. These children may look clumsy, be too loud, or appear to have behavioral issues. Sensory input can be alerting and therefore help a child who feels sluggish. It can also calm an overloaded system and help a child feel organized within their own bodies and in a space. A sensory seeker may:

  • stand too close to someone or not have a sense of personal space
  • have a high tolerance to pain
  • constantly touch objects
  • squirm and fidget
  • get distracted
  • chew on non-food related items like shirt sleeves
  • play rough and take physical risks
  • seek out or make loud noises
  • be constantly on the move
  • enjoy movement like jumping, hopping or may crash into things
  • like deep pressure
  • hold objects with too much pressure
  • hurt themselves or others unintentionally
  • stomp their feet

What can help a child who needs movement?

  • Use a weighted blanket when lying down or weighted animal on the lap when seated.
  • Create more opportunities for alerting and heavy work activities throughout the day to reduce the amount of time a child attempts to seek movement on their own.
  • An alerting activity could be followed with a heavy work activity to help a child to become calm and re-focused for seated work or before returning to class after recess time.
  • Reduce screen time before bedtime.

What can help an under-responsive child who appears lethargic, tires easily or is slow to get going?

Sensory under-responders may not notice input from one or more of the sensory systems. They may react slowly and require strong inputs before they’ll respond. They may appear lazy, slow or disinterested. Some things that can help an under-responsive child are:

  • offer more alerting activities/movement breaks prior to a task that requires attention and concentration if they appear lethargic or sleepy. Movement breaks can be doing jumping jacks or jogging on the spot.
  • engage in a heavy work activity such a wall presses or hand presses before an activity that requires coordination to help wake up the muscles around the joints
  • take sips from a water bottle throughout the day
  • use fidget toys such as fidget spinner or Tangle Toy
  • try a Movin’sit cushion on a chair to allow for movement when seated
  • color coding and more use of color can help with organization and attention to detail

Create a Sensory Diet

A sensory diet, first created by occupational therapists Wilbarger and Wilbarger (1991) , is an individualized plan of physical activities and accommodations to help a person meet their sensory needs. This plan provides the sensory input needed to stay focused and organized throughout the day.

The main goal of a sensory diet is to prevent sensory and emotional overload by meeting the nervous system’s sensory needs; however, it can also be used as a recovery technique. A sensory diet can support children who feel or seem sluggish and need activities to help them feel more alert. Engaging children in sensory experiences on a regular schedule can encourage focus, attentiveness, and interaction. Children may feel less anxious when they feel comfortable and in control.

An occupational therapist (OT) usually designs a sensory diet. Parents and caregivers can then use the tailored activities at home; teachers/educational assistants can use them at school. The reason it is recommended to consult with an OT who has experience with sensory processing issues is because one the trickiest aspects of sensory difficulty is recognizing when a child is overreactive or underreactive in any given moment, then adjusting sensory input to meet them where they are, and providing the right challenge to help them move forward into a “just right” state of being.

Observational checklists can be used to gather information about a person’s sensory profile. There are numerous sensory checklists available online or in books such as Answers to Questions Teachers Ask about Sensory Integration or Building Bridges Through Sensory Integration.

If you still have questions…

For more information on red flags of sensory processing disorder for different age groups, please read the SPD Foundation’s list. The Middletown Center for Autism Sensory Processing Resource has an extensive list of strategies for each of the senses, then lists the strategies according to over or under-responsiveness.

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