Children dealing with sensory issues can find everyday activities and situations challenging. Find out what treatments for children with sensory issues are available.
If you want to find out if your child may have sensory issues. Check out our article on helping kids with sensory issues.
For some children certain situations are over-stimulating leading to ‘hyper’ behaviour and anxiety.
Under-stimulated children can fall into an unresponsive state, or go seeking out sensations in inappropriate ways – chewing objects, touching, moving and getting in other people’s personal space.
Paediatric occupational therapists and psychologists have a range of strategies they can use to help children with sensory issues, which parents can also learn and implement.
One of the most effective is using sensory activities to ‘calm down’ over-stimulated children or ‘wake up’ under-responsive children. Sensory seeking children are often given a ‘sensory diet’ of regular activities to fill their appetite for extra information.
Using sensory activities for helping kids with sensory issues
Hyper or over-stimulated children are described as being in a state of ‘high alert’ by occupational therapists, while under-responsive children are in ‘low alert’. Parents and therapists can help children move into the ‘just right’ zone which is considered the optimal state of mind for learning and daily activities.
Throughout the day different sensations and experiences cause people to move through different levels of alertness. Most people on waking are in the low alert zone, moving into the just right zone after breakfast and a coffee. Later an argument with someone could push them into high alert and they fall back into just right after a work out at the gym.
While certain activities are considered generally either alerting or calming, it does vary between individuals. So when working out how to help your child you need to understand what causes them to change zones. What sensory input, experiences or environments move them from ‘just right’ to ‘high’? What pushes them from ‘low’ to ‘just right’, or from ‘high’ back to ‘just right’? This information will help you know what sensory activities are calming or alerting for your child.
Calming and alerting activities for helping kids with sensory issues
|Drinking thick milkshake through straw
Sucking on a lollipop
Sweet or bland flavours
|Eating ‘crunchy’ food – carrot sticks, ice cubes, crackers
Sucking on a lemon
Spicy or salty flavours
|Movement (proprioceptive and vestibular)
Slow rhythmic movements
Carrying or pushing heavy things
Jumping on a trampoline alone
Bouncing and jumping
Rapid changes of direction
Jumping on a trampoline with others
Soft and silky materials
Wind on skin
Labels in clothes
Messy play – sand, water, finger painting
Hair and nail cutting
Uncluttered, organized spaces
Regular light source
|Bright lights and colours
Regular or rhythmical sounds, music
Background noise, white noise
A variety of sounds
The key principle to keep in mind is that physical activity is calming. Anything that uses the muscles – exercise, chewing crunchy food, ripping up paper for recycling or squeezing your hands together will work to stimulate the right parts of the brain to release calming chemicals. It is important to choose activities that are not tiring, but rather will ‘activate’ the body and brain. If the job is too tiring it could instead cause stress and fatigue.
Another important factor to consider is you don’t have to address one sensory problem with the same sensory system. For example if noisy environments cause your child to move into ‘high alert’, this does not necessarily need to be addressed with head phones (a sound solution), you could instead use deep pressure like a cuddle or squeezing the child’s hand.
Parents can use calming activities to help a hyper child calm down. Calming activities can also be used to help prepare the child for events that are generally stressful, like bath time or a visit to the mall. It is important to get professional advice before using ‘alerting’ activities in a child’s daily routine, as you want to make sure they are in the ‘low alert’ zone and not in ‘shut down’ mode, when they are so over-stimulated they have stopped taking in sensory information.
For sensory-seeking children regular bursts of alerting activities can be used throughout the day as a ‘sensory diet’. Regular and predictable amounts of sensory input will help children to regulate their behaviour so they don’t feel the need to ‘over indulge’ in inappropriate sensory activities.
Dealing with avoidance behaviours
Children who are overwhelmed by certain sensations will often try to avoid the sensation they fear. Avoidance can be obvious – the child with their hands over their ears screaming “It’s too loud” or less obvious, for example, trying to avoid playgroup because they find the noise levels there overwhelming.
Desensitisation is a strategy that works by gradually exposing the child to the sensation they want to avoid and building confidence that they can manage it.
This strategy takes children through a series of steps from an easy starting point to the end goal. Parents or therapists guide children through each step, going at the child’s pace. Children may be offered some kind of reward to motivate them to try each new step, and lots of praise should follow successes. Rewards do not need to be food treats or new toys. Anything motivating for the child can work; tablet time, reading a favourite book with a parent, or a special outing.
An example of a series of steps for the face washing issue might be:
- Allow the child to put drops of water (an eye dropper could be used to give child control of quantity of water) on the parent’s face or a bath toy
- Get to child to put a drop of water on their arm or drops from their arm to their shoulder
- Get the child to put a drop of water on their cheek
- Get the child to put a drop of water on each cheek
- Get the child to make raindrops using the eye dropper on their face
- Get the child to wipe away the raindrops with a warm wet fannel on a small part of the face
- Wash off the raindrops with a fannel from a larger part of the face
- Use the flannel to wash the raindrops off the whole face.
Desensitisation could take months or it could progress more quickly depending on the child’s level of anxiety. Parents need to follow their child’s cues and use their imaginations to come up with ideas that will appeal to their child. It is important to give the child some choice and control of the situation (For example: Do you want to put the rain drop on your knee or arm?).
Dealing with sensory-seeking behaviours
Sensory-seeking children often display inappropriate behaviours that can cause embarrassment for the child and annoy others. Thumb and finger sucking is a common calming behaviour that becomes embarrassing as children grow older.
The basic rule when helping kids deal with sensory issues is to ‘fill the gap’. If you remove a calming behavior, you need to offer the child another calming strategy. If you don’t, the sensory need will remain and children will find their own, perhaps less appropriate, solution. For example thumb sucking could be replaced by a squeezy toy or type of material they like to touch. The replacement item could live in their pocket (or be sewn in) to be held or squeezed if needed. Ranges of sensory products that can help ‘fill the gap’ are available at:
Social stories: Stories are powerful and can be used to teach children about appropriate behaviour in situations they find difficult. Social stories are often used in treating children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) but they can help any child to change inappropriate behaviour. A social story is a short story that advises children about a specific social situation, such as ‘how to behave at the doctor’s surgery’. It describes the situation and offers advice on what the child can do. Writing it for your own child allows you to tailor the content to their situation, personality and interests.
More information about social stories can be found at:
This article is based on information from the course ‘Solving Sensory Issues’ provided by Hutt Valley DHB’s Child Development Team.