Sensory Secrets

What does a sensory integration issue really look like? Well, it depends on which sensory systems are involved. For each sense you have- sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, body awareness (proprioception) and balance sense (vestibular)- the senses can be heightened or lowered causing the child to overreact or underreact. Sometimes, kids can have a bit of both covering a handful of senses involved. For instance, someone may not be able to tolerate bright lights or sunny days, but have a hard time processing what is heard. A child may be slow to develop speech but have a wound up vestibular or balance system making him constantly seek movement and input. Because there can be a variety of ways a sensory system can react, it can be kind of tough to know where to begin! The secret to figuring it out is keeping a sensory journal and jotting down what patterns you see. Once you see the patterns, you can begin to tackle how to satisfy the sensory system.

To get you started, here's a list of characteristics each sense shows when a child is struggling with it. Remember, the child can overreact or underreact in each area.


• Becomes upset-or doesn’t notice- when hands, face or clothing are messy (paint, food, sand)

• Becomes anxious- or craves- walking barefoot on grass, sand, carpet, etc. (Walks on toes to avoid touching surface.)

• Complains about clothing being uncomfortable- dresses inappropriately for the weather.

• Avoids being touched, especially unexpectedly or by unfamiliar people- or constantly seeks physical contact.

• Feels pain more or less intensely than others.

• Strongly dislikes brushing teeth, having hair washed, nails cut.


•Light Sensitivity: hypersensitivity to bright lights, sunlight, glare and fluorescent light resulting in fatigue, anxiety, dizziness.

•Contrast sensitivity: inability to discriminate letters from the page.

•Impaired print resolution: letters appear to move, shimmer, shift or break apart

•Restricted span of recognition: difficulty reading groups of letters or words at a time, or moving from line to line

•Distortions in the environment: objects appear blurry, moving, or changing (stairs may wiggle or disappear, faces may look weird, floor may move)

•Visual Figure Ground: too many objects in the room “screaming” for attention- visual overstimulation.

Hearing (vs. Auditory Processing)

There is a difference between the ability to hear and processing the information heard. It is important to differentiate between the two. Having an ENT assess the ability to hear will be most helpful with this category.

• Has excessively strong reactions- or none at all- too loud or unusual noises

• Not speak as well as other same age children

• Seems distracted by sounds in the classroom like book pages being turned, someone walking down the hall, the sound of a classmate writing, the hum of the fluorescent lights

• Have a significant history of ear infections

• Cover his ears frequently to block out sound- or for no apparent reason

• Seem uncomfortable or distracted in a group or busy room

• React to sounds you don’t hear- or react to them long before you hear them

• Have an unusually high or low voice volume

• Often asks others to repeat what they said

• Have trouble with phonics and learning to read

Taste and Speech (Oral)

This category is multi-faceted. Taste is straight forward but when it comes to eating- it can be a touch issue or a body awareness issue in knowing where the lips, jaw, tongue are in space. The same it true for speech which can overlap with body awareness of the mouth and auditory processing or hearing. Your sensory journal will help pin point which is which.

• Stuffs mouth full of food, “messy” eater

• Difficulty coordinating muscles of mouth to speak and eat

• Explores everything by tasting it or putting it in her mouth

• Hypersensitive to certain textures or temperatures of food vs. craves variety of foods- spicy, crunchy- or not bothered by extremely hot food (boiling cheese on pizza)


• Overly bothered by certain smells- find repulsive (ex. Mint in toothpaste, wood pencils, detergent on other’s clothing)

• Not bothered by foul smells

• Explores everything by smell often inappropriately

Body Awareness (Proprioception)

Proprioception is the internal sense that tells you where your body parts are without having to look at them.

• Seems to move awkwardly or stiffly- uncoordinated (poor motor planning)

• Seems to be physically weaker than other children

• Uses too little or too much force on things (trouble with clothing snaps, writes too light or too dark with a pencil, breaks toys often)

• Pushes, hits, bites, or bangs into other children although not aggressive by nature

• Avoids- or craves- jumping, crashing, pushing, pulling, bouncing, and hanging

• Chews on clothing or objects, stuffs mouth full of food, difficulty articulating muscles of mouth to speak or eat

• Always looks at what he is doing (watches feet while walking or running)

Balance Sense (Vestibular)

The Vestibular System is the primary organizer of sensory input. Sensory receptors in the inner ear give crucial information about movement, gravity and vibration. It works at all times to give us input about the pull of Earth’s gravity related to the position of the head.

• Constantly on the move (can’t sit still, fidgets)

• Dislikes- or craves- activities that require feet to leave the ground or challenge balance (gravitational insecurity)

• Seems to have a stiff head, neck and shoulders- or always holds head straight

• Hesitates or is afraid of climbing or descending stairs and playground equipment

• Seems overly fearful- or fearless- of movement, heights, or falling

• Gets dizzy very easily- or never gets dizzy

• Becomes easily carsick or falls asleep immediately in the car (bus, boat, train, plane)

Once you identify the sensory patterns your child is showing, you can begin to help integrate these senses and regulate the sensory system. Children will often tell you exactly what they need once they have the language to express how they are feeling and how to take care of those sensations. This can be as easy as spending time in a rocking chair to calm the system down or wearing sunglasses while outside on sunny days. For more treatment tips, visit the Parent Resource page and watch the video Coping with Sensory Issues in the Home. If you'd like a paper copy of the Home Remedies or have questions, feel free to contact me at

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