What Is Your Child’s Sensory Profile? (And Why It’s Critical to Know)
Sensory processing disorder can impact the brain’s ability to receive, organize, or respond to sensory input via any of the eight senses. In children, SPD can impact behavior, learning, and everyday happiness. If your child experiences sensory issues, create a sensory profile to match their needs to appropriate supports. Here’s how.
Sensory processing is complicated — and occurs within all of us. Many of us have an aversion to strong smells, a sensitivity to bright lights, or a reaction to certain clothing textures. These sensitivities are amplified, however, in children with sensory processing disorder (SPD), who may be over- or under-responsive to sensory input, seek specific sensations, or struggle to discern sensory information altogether. For these kids, daily functioning and wellbeing hinge on sensory needs — and our ability to understand and anticipate them.
What’s the best way to do this? Create a sensory profile. Begin by mapping your child’s unique needs to each of their senses (hint: there are more than five). Then consider how to tailor their environment – through sensory toys, home accommodations, school services, and more – to support their strengths and needs.
Sensory Processing: An Overview
Sensory processing is the neurology of how we feel.1 In this process, we receive information through the body’s various senses, organize it, and use it to make sense of and interact with the world around us.
The 8 Senses
You probably know about the following five senses:
- Tactile (touch)
- Gustatory (taste)
- Olfactory (smell)
The three lesser-known senses include the following:
- Vestibular: Located in the inner ear, this sense allows us to keep our balance and posture.
- Proprioception: Also known as body awareness, this sense helps us determine where our body parts are in relation to one another, without us having to look at them.
- Interoception: The sense of what’s going on inside the body, from heart rate, hunger, thirst, and even emotions.
Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory processing disorder can impact the brain’s ability to receive, organize, or respond to sensory input via any of the eight senses, and it can include any of the following specific challenges:
- Sensory modulation disorder includes the distinct profiles of sensory over-responsivity, sensory under-responsivity, and sensory craving (i.e., never satiated by a sensation).
- Sensory-based motor disorder covers conditions like dyspraxia and postural disorder, which affect movement, balance, and coordination.
- Sensory discrimination disorder is characterized by difficulties accurately sensing sensory input.
Not many people realize that the sensory systems are foundational to development, functioning and wellbeing. Differences in sensory processing may undermine the acquisition of skills of a higher order – from behavior to learning. This is why sensory challenges in kids often manifest in school, show up as behavior problems, and make daily living difficult.
Creating a Sensory Profile to Support Your Child’s Needs
Start with the following four questions to build your child’s sensory profile.
1. What are your child’s strengths? What are their interests? Do they like to be outdoors? Do they like imaginative play? Do they like music?
2. What tends to dysregulate your child? What soothes or regulates them?
Does your child…
- …cover their ears and flinch in response to loud or unexpected noises?
- …like deep hugs, or avoid them?
- …squint at bright overhead lights?
- …complain about the feel of certain fabrics on their skin?
- …fuss over sitting still for long periods?
- …always seem to be chewing on something (like a shirt sleeve)?
- …struggle with unexpected transitions?
- …dislike visual clutter?
- …like crunchy foods? Prefer to drink through a straw?
- …say they are often tired after social events or school activities?
3. How should you change your child’s environment and routines to honor their strengths and support their sensory needs? The following are a few ideas:
- Provide your child with noise-reduction/noise-canceling headphones if they are sensitive to sounds.
- Incorporate movement into their days through dance classes, time at the local playground, or hide-and-seek around the home. (A plus if they already enjoy these activities.)
- Opt for dim ambient lighting over harsh fluorescent lighting (especially overhead).
- Avoid certain foods during mealtimes, or add preferred foods and textures (crunchy, firm, creamy, etc.) to every meal to satisfy the oral input sense.
- Only purchase clothes made of fabrics your child tolerates.
- Schedule alone time for your child; discuss options for breaks in social settings.
- Create visual schedules to help with transitions and minimize surprises.
- Seek sensory accommodations at school, like breaks from loud classrooms, or fidget-use. (Note: Your child may be eligible to receive sensory supports under an IEP or 504 Plan if their needs interfere with learning.)
- Register for group or independent activities, depending on your child’s social preferences.
- Designate a quiet corner at home as your child’s sensory space, complete with their favorite books and toys.
4. Could your child benefit from sensory toys and equipment?
- Sensory pods are inflatable and provide deep pressure to the lower body.
- Weighted blankets come in various sizes and weight options. (Note that the blanket may lose effectiveness as the body adjusts to the weight.)
- Therapy balls are great for children who seek vestibular input.
- Fidget toys are popular and discrete sensory tools.
- Body sox (#CommissionsEarned) work well for proprioceptive input.
- Lycra swings (#CommissionsEarned) tap into multiple senses (tactile, proprioceptive, vestibular).
- Chew necklaces (#CommissionsEarned) are great for kids who seek oral input.
- Tents work well as “reset” or private spaces for the sensory-sensitive and sensory-seeking.
More Tips for Supporting Children with SPD
1. Adopt a neurodiversity-affirming mindset. Accept that your child has unique strengths, needs, and challenges. (SPD falls under the umbrella of neurodivergence.) Avoid deliberately and unnecessarily exposing your child to uncomfortable sensory experiences. When we accommodate children with enhanced sensory needs, we help them feel safe, which gives them the confidence to explore the world around them.
2. Check in with your own senses. Even if you don’t have SPD, you still have sensory needs. Meet your needs so you can help your child meet theirs. Think about the eight senses as you understand your own sensory profile and what grounds you. Modeling self-regulation will help your child do the same.
3. Seek professional help. An occupational therapist (OT) is best suited to identify SPD and support your child’s sensory needs. (SPD is not in the DSM-5, but OTs use different diagnoses, like “unspecified disorder of the central nervous system,” to secure services.) Your child’s pediatrician may be able to write a referral to an OT or another specialist.
Sensory Processing Problems and ADHD: Next Steps
- Free Download: Is It More Than Just ADHD?
- Self-Test: Sensory Processing Disorder in Children
- Read: How to Engineer Better Environments for a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD
- Watch: Sensory-Smart Strategies for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “What Is Your Child’s Sensory Profile? Strategies for Supporting Children with ADHD and SPD” [Video Replay and Podcast #394] with Candace Peterson, M.S., OTR/L which was broadcast live on March 30, 2022.
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View Article Sources
1STAR Institute. Understanding sensory processing disorder. Retrieved from https://sensoryhealth.org/basic/understanding-sensory-processing-disorder
2 Miller, L. J., Schoen, S. A., Mulligan, S., & Sullivan, J. (2017). Identification of Sensory Processing and Integration Symptom Clusters: A Preliminary Study. Occupational Therapy International, 2017, 2876080. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/2876080