Tips and Tricks for Your Sensory Avoiding Child

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L June 29, 2023 1 Comment

Tips and Tricks for Your Sensory Avoiding Child

What is a sensory avoider? What are the signs and what exactly do they mean? How can you help your child meet their sensory needs so they can feel successful throughout their day? This article answers these questions, and more!

Sensory Over-Responsivity, aka Sensory Avoiding

You may have heard the term “sensory avoider,” but what does it actually mean?

“Sensory Avoiding” comes from a category within Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD): Sensory Over-Responsivity (SOR). To get even more technical, SOR falls within a specific subtype of SPD, Sensory Modulation Disorder.

sensory avoider

SOR refers to someone who is more sensitive to sensory input. They often have “over reactions” to sensory input because their body and brain cannot properly process the input. This can look like a fight-flight-freeze response, which is often called “sensory defensiveness.” This can look like a child who avoids certain types of movement or is fearful when their feet leave the ground; a child who becomes anxious in noisy situations or avoids certain sounds like the vacuum; a child who responds aggressively to someone touching them; or a child who refuses certain foods or certain textures of clothing.

A sensory avoider will often avoid or try to minimize the sensory input they experience. This can cause challenges with play and social activities, school based tasks, and daily routines such as getting dressed, hygiene, and eating a meal.

Signs of a Sensory Avoider

There are eight sensory systems, and your child can be a sensory avoider within one or more of these eight systems.

Vestibular

Vestibular input comes from any type of movement that involves a head position change. We all have vestibular receptors within our inner ear, so when our head moves, the fluid in our inner ear moves, which activates our vestibular system. Vestibular input is directly connected to our visual and auditory systems, as well as has a direct impact on muscle tone and balance. Additionally, vestibular input is typically alerting.


Signs that your child is a vestibular sensory avoider, or over-responsive to vestibular input:

  • Refuses swings or slides
  • Avoids activities that require their feet to leave the ground
  • Low muscle tone and endurance with movement activities
  • Becomes dizzy very easily and/or experiences frequent motion sickness

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory avoider, these challenges must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their vestibular avoiding habits cause challenges with transitions, engaging with peers and movement games, safely moving through their environment, sports, or any other daily routine task (including sleep).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing vestibular information, they may also struggle with:

Proprioception

Proprioceptive inputcomes from movement - we have proprioceptive receptors in our joints and muscles so that when we move, these receptors activate and tell our brain where we are, what we’re doing, and how well we’re doing it so that adjustments can be made. Proprioception is directly connected to our tactile system, as well as is considered the “all calming” sense - certain types of proprioceptive input can be calming to the nervous system.

Because of the calming nature of proprioceptive input, it is very uncommon for anyone to be over-responsive, or avoiding, of this type of input. Instead, if a child is overly sensitive to a different type of input, you can use proprioceptive activities to help calm the nervous system.

Vision

When we talk about the visual system, we’re not talking about visual acuity, or how well you can see objects near and far. The visual sensory system is what you see, how your brain processes and interprets what you see, and then how you respond. As mentioned above, the visual system is directly connected to the vestibular system, which means that if something isn’t working the way it should with one, the other is likely to be affected.

Signs that your child is a visual sensory avoider:

  • Avoids certain rooms or environments with bright lightning or too many people
  • Gets headaches or complains of eye fatigue during reading and writing tasks or other visual activities
  • Avoids vestibular activities like swings or spinning
  • Excessive blinking (unrelated to physical tics)
  • Struggles with eye contact and/or visually locating objects

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory avoider, these challenges must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their visual avoiding habits cause challenges with transitions, playing with their peers, safely moving through their environment, completing school tasks, or any other daily routine task (including meal time, getting dressed, and sleep).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing visual information, they may also struggle with:

  • Balance and coordination
  • Hand-eye coordination tasks
  • Reading and writing
  • Fine motor tasks such as self-feeding or fasteners on clothing

Auditory

When we talk about the auditory system, we’re not talking about how well you can hear. The auditory system is similar to the visual system, in that it has to do with what you hear, how your brain processes and interprets what you hear, and how you respond. As mentioned above, the auditory system is directly connected to the vestibular system, due to the fact that your vestibular receptors are located in your inner ear.

Signs that your child is an auditory sensory avoider:

  • Complains of everyday objects being “too loud” (vacuum, blender, etc.) - may even be fearful of these noises
  • Becomes anxious in busy, loud environments and may avoid these situations
  • A fire alarm at school sends them into fight-or-flight mode
  • Avoids toys or activities that become noisy or loud

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory avoider, these challenges must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their auditory avoiding habits cause challenges with transitions, playing with their peers, safely moving through their environment, focusing during class time, or any other daily routine task (including meal time, getting dressed, and sleep).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing auditory information, they may also struggle with:

  • Vestibular processing
  • Following multi-step instructions
  • Holding a conversation
  • Understanding what certain sounds mean

Tactile

We have tactile receptors all over our skin, including inside our mouth. These tactile receptors are always “on,” meaning they are always processing anything that is touching our skin: clothing, hair, wind, food, etc. As mentioned above, the tactile system is directly connected to the proprioceptive system, and oftentimes tactile input also provides proprioceptive input, such as a hug from our friend or when someone bumps into us.

Signs that your child is a tactile sensory avoider:

  • Unable to tolerate certain clothing textures, seams, or tags
  • Refuses to get their hands messy (or other parts of their body)
  • Anxious when others touch them or if someone accidentally bumps into them
  • Is an extremely picky eater
  • Seems uncomfortable in their own skin

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory avoider, these challenges must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their tactile avoiding habits cause challenges with transitions, playing with their peers, safely moving through their environment, focusing during class time, or any other daily routine task (including meal time, getting dressed, and sleep).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing tactile information, they may also struggle with:

  • Fine motor tasks such as handwriting, self-feeding, and dressing
  • Bathing / washing / hygiene tasks
  • Self-soothing / self-regulation

Gustatory and olfactory

Your gustatory (sense of taste) and olfactory (sense of smell) systems are so intertwined, that we are going to talk about them together! These two senses help with eating and drinking. They work together as you prepare food and eat. The olfactory sense is also connected to our memories and emotions. Additionally, because we have tactile receptors inside our mouth as well as proprioceptive receptors in our jaw, these senses are all connected.

Signs that your child is a gustatory and/or olfactory sensory avoider:

  • Is a very picky eater
  • Refuses to get hands messy
  • Becomes upset around certain types of foods that have strong scents
  • May have low muscle tone in their oral structures

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory avoider, these challenges must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their gustatory and/or olfactory avoiding habits cause challenges with transitions, social interactions, focusing during class time, or any other daily routine task (including meal time and hygiene tasks).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing gustatory and/or olfactory information, they may also struggle with:

  • Self-feeding skills
  • Verbal communication and articulation

Interoception

This hidden (eighth) sense is your ability to understand the internal workings of your body. This includes things like hunger and thirst, knowing when to use the bathroom, if you feel ill, and temperature regulation. It also is connected to emotional intelligence and your ability to understand your emotions, regulate them, and communicate successfully.

Signs that your child is an interoceptive sensory avoider:

  • Avoids extreme temperatures
  • May be a very picky eater
  • Struggles with toileting
  • May avoid all risky play
  • Has very big emotions and struggles to self-regulate
  • In fight-or-flight often

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory avoider, these challenges must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their interoceptive avoidig habits cause challenges with transitions, social interactions, focusing during class time, or any other daily routine task (including meal time, using the bathroom, and sleep).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing interoceptive information, they may also struggle with:

  • Body awareness
  • Hunger and thirst cues
  • Pain tolerance or pain awareness
  • Toilet training
  • Emotional intelligence

Tips and tricks for your sensory avoider

Now let’s dive into some tips and tricks! If your child is a sensory avoider (over-responsive), it can be helpful to seek out a trained therapist (like an occupational therapist, OT) who can provide sensory strategies and a personalized sensory diet.

If your child is displaying signs of sensory avoiding behavior, the first thing you want to do is make sure you’re helping them meet their sensory needs. This is also known as “meeting the sensory threshold.” Learn more about how to do this by listening to this podcast episode. Helping your child meet their sensory threshold will help them feel more calm and regulated, vs. dysregulated by too much sensory input.

What sensory activities does your child enjoy the most? Include these into the daily routine and start including other sensory activities that target other sensory systems. Be sure to include simple quick sensory activities that target the senses your child tends to avoid. The key here is “short and sweet.” You don’t want to overwhelm them with too much, since their sensory system already struggles to process the input (which is why they avoid it). Including the non-preferred sensory activity with a preferred sensory activity will help create a positive association.

Try these “short and sweet” sensory activities and strategies for different sensory systems:

Vestibular

  • Crawl through a tunnel
  • Crawl or run down a grassy hill
  • Climb up a slide
  • Sit on your lap to swing
  • Sit and gently bounce on a therapy / exercise ball
  • Jump on a mini trampoline

The beauty of these simple vestibular activities is that they combine some type of calming proprioceptive input which can help decrease overstimulation.

Visual

  • Roll a large ball back and forth
  • Less light-up toys and more simple toys like blocks with neutral colors
  • Less time on screens
  • Wear a hat
  • Wear sunglasses

Auditory

  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Calm music like classical tunes
  • Allow them to have control over the loud noises, like pushing the button on the blender
  • Provide them with control over noisy toys, like drums
  • Fewer toys that make lots of noise
  • Metronome activities

Tactile

  • Use a vibrating massager and/or dry brush on arms, legs, and back
  • More heavy work to the entire body - animal walks, deep pressure, etc.
  • Messy play that your child has more control over:
    • Let them set up the messy play activity
    • Allow use of gloves and utensils, cups and scoops
    • Use preferred toys to increase engagement
    • Set it up as a “wash station”

The more you do it, the easier it gets! Consistent exposure helps the tactile system learn how to process different input!

Gustatory and olfactory

If your child is an extremely picky eater, it might be a good idea to seek out feeding therapy with a specialist who can help you identify the reason behind the picky eating. Strategies that you can use at home:

  • If your child will touch the food with their hands, they are more likely to eat it. Include food play into the daily routine - not at meal time - with no expectation to eat it.
  • Make sure the meal table is inviting and a fun place to be. This podcast episode has some great tips.
  • Experiment with different essential oils. Put a drop of an essential oil on a cotton ball - do this with several different scents. Play a game of smelling each one and identifying if you like it or not. The scents that your child likes can then be used during challenging situations (try adding a drop of it to a scrunchy for a scented wrist band).

Primitive reflexes

An important thing to look at if your child is sensory over-responsive is primitive reflexes. Retained primitive reflexes can negatively impact your child’s sensory processing. If you’re new to primitive reflexes and want to learn more, check out this blog post.

Emotional intelligence

One key factor in helping your child with sensory over-responsivity is to help them identify situations and challenges that they are facing. The first step is to identify the situations or sensory activities that they dislike. Talk about why these activities are difficult and how it makes their body feel.

Emotional Intelligence

The next step is to identify in-the-moment strategies. If going to the swimming pool is challenging for your child because of so much visual and auditory input, identify some proprioceptive activities that they can complete BEFORE going (this can help their nervous system regulate before going into an overstimulating situation). Then identify strategies for while at the pool, such as noise canceling headphones when not in the water, some chewing gum or sour food to provide proprioceptive input, or wearing sunglasses. These in-the-moment strategies will be very individualized to your child and take some trial-and-error to find what works.

Working to identify the emotions associated with challenging situations and the emotions associated with strategies is a beneficial, life-long skill for your child.

Identify strengths

Sensory avoiding children often have challenges with self-confidence. They may realize that they are “different” from their peers; they may struggle to make and keep friends; they may be considered the “shy” kid in school; simple daily tasks are more difficult. Because of this, it’s important to build up their self-confidence by helping them identify their strengths.

What is your sensory child REALLY good at? What are they interested in? Ask them questions and engage with them in what they enjoy. Help foster their strengths. Reinforce their effort over the results. Set them up for success and teach them how to problem solve.

No matter what your child’s sensory needs are, you can help teach your child how to meet their sensory needs so they feel regulated and can successfully complete the things they have to and want to do every day!

Check out our video on 5 Tips & Strategies for a Sensory Avoider

Jessica Hill, COTA/L
Jessica Hill, COTA/L

Jessica Hill, COTA/L, CPRCS is Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) and Certified Primitive Reflex Clinical Specialist. She has been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Jessica specializes in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica is the in-house expert, content creator, and one of the podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to her weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


1 Response

Desiree Alexander
Desiree Alexander

August 17, 2023

I am so greatful to have come across your site I have learnt so much, I apply almost everything I learn for u.

How do I become a Certified Primitive Reflex Clinical specialist . Where can I do the trainings , preferably onLine

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