See Part 1 for more information and background on concepts.
One of our earliest science lessons is about our senses. Coincidentally, sensory needs are often the driving force behind a lot of children’s behavior issues, starting very early in life. To address troubling behavior, increased sensory needs have to be met, or children can find problematic or dangerous ways to meet their own needs.
Sensory needs must be met. There is no option here. This is a biological imperative and failing to meet that imperative impacts mental and physical health.
In the earlier posts about meltdowns, we talked a little about playing detective and finding the triggers of meltdowns. The search for sensory needs is very much the same process. We analyze behaviors and try to understand what need that behavior is meeting. Once we understand the need, we can meet it in a safe and effective way.
Here are some behaviors that suggest your child has a need for more input or may be less sensitive in these areas:
Sight: wiggling fingers in front of their eyes, turning lights off and on repeatedly, preferring videos with bright, flashing lights or very quick movements
Hearing: turning the volume up very high, yelling/humming/vocalizing without intent to communicate
Smell: smelling unusual objects or fingers after touching surfaces
Taste: preferring salty, sour, or spicy foods
Light Touch: asking to be tickled, stroking or petting others’ clothing or skin
Deep Pressure: roughhousing, slamming into walls/furniture/people, jumping, running, burying in couch cushions or pillows, enjoying weighted vests or blankets or compression/tight garments, lifting or carrying heavy objects or moving furniture, asking to be thrown onto soft surfaces
Proprioception: climbing on high surfaces, swinging, asking to be thrown in the air, balancing games, falling or stumbling frequently, running into walls and doorways
Vestibular: spinning, swinging
Interoception: unable to recognize pain or discomfort, delayed toilet training
If you read this list, you may have noticed some overlap. For instance, asking to be thrown could be a need for proprioceptive input (the flying part) or deep pressure (the impact). No one behavior will answer the question of what your child’s need is. But over time, recognizing trends can help you meet needs.
You may have also noticed that some of the behaviors are choices and some are unintentional. Children with increased proprioception needs may climb and swing, but may also fall often and run into things. It’s important to remember that having low sensitivity to a stimulus, like position in relation to other objects, can cause problems, and at the same time the child may seek the input to meet that neurological need.
Here are some ways you can help your child meet some specific sensory needs:
Sight: toys that have moving parts, like marble mazes, spinning toys
Taste: allow the testing of strong tastes, even if you wouldn’t enjoy it
Light Touch: toys with different textures, messy, finger activities like clay, slime, and finger paint, outdoor play with sand and mud
Proprioception: indoor and outdoor climbing toys, balance rocks and beams
You have two options: meet your child's needs safely or watch them try to meet their own.
Often, children with high needs in some senses have high sensitivity in others. We'll look at those sensitivities next.