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Sensory needs

Updated: Apr 2

At the RRC, we talk a lot about emotion regulation and having our sensory needs are part of the foundation of regulation. Today's newsletters is written by Catherine Cook, MHC, and is all about sensory input and needs. I'll leave it to Catherine here, but as always - thanks for reading!


Let’s talk about sensory needs.

What is sensory input? Simply put, it is what we take in through our five senses: tactile/touch, olfactory/smell, auditory, vision, gustatory/taste. Occupational therapists identify three other ways of receiving sensory input: proprioception, vestibular, and interoception. Proprioception is the awareness of our muscles and joints in space. Have you ever seen someone who walks into people and honestly seems confused that they bumped into someone? This person is lacking proprioceptive awareness. Think of any activity that will push or pull against our body- this is providing our sensory system with proprioceptive input. Vestibular input is what helps us with balance. Compared to proprioceptive input, vestibular input is our awareness of our equilibrium and orientation in space. We receive this input from activities like swinging. Have you watched a child emotionally struggle and then swing and calm down? The child needed vestibular input to regulate his/her/their body. Interoceptive awareness is being aware of your internal bodily needs, such as hunger or thirst. 


We all have sensory needs. Maybe you love the feeling of being wrapped in a soft blanket. It settles you and eases the stress of the day. Maybe it’s a piece of chocolate melting on your tongue that resets you. And on the opposite hand, it could be trying to block out noises of a large crowd, or shielding your eyes from bright lights. We either add or take away a type of sensory input to remain balanced. Just because we have sensory needs does not mean we have sensory processing disorder


Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is diagnosed when the brain cannot integrate and process the information being received from the five senses. Those with SPD may have emotional meltdowns, behavior problems, and difficulty focusing when their sensory system is dysregulated. When sensory needs are met, children are calm, focused, and regulated. As caregivers we can learn what our children need and provide opportunities to meet their needs. 

  1. Observe: Observe behaviors that your child consistently engages in, specifically ones that you notice they “crave” and behave more calmly once they are done engaging in them.

  2. Curiosity: If your child is at the age where he/she/they can express themselves, get curious. Talk about it and get her/his/their thoughts.

  3. Be Proactive: Make a plan with your child. Plan ahead and provide tools that help your child remain regulated.


What does this look like in real life? Here is an example:


Billy is constantly asking to swing. If Billy is upset, you notice that he runs into the backyard to swing. You notice that when he finishes swinging, he comes inside and sits quietly and plays. Billy may not be aware of the reason swinging helps him. He simply knows it does. Teachers report that Billy struggles to focus in the morning at school. He is bouncing in his seat and getting up to walk around. But after recess, he is calmer. They notice that he swings a lot during recess. You decide to talk to Billy about it. “Billy, I’ve noticed that when you get upset you go outside to swing. Your teacher also notices that you have a hard time sitting and listening in class until after you’ve had a chance to swing. Tell me more about it.” Billy may not have the vocabulary to say “Well mom, I’m seeking proprioceptive and vestibular input to remain emotionally regulated,” but he may say “It makes me feel good. It helps my body to calm and helps me to focus.” This is valuable information. You can make a plan with Billy to swing before the bus comes. You tell the teacher your plan and ask for feedback on how Billy is doing at school in the mornings to increase focus in the classroom.


Having more insight into your child’s (as well as your own) sensory needs can be an important way to better understand situations and stimuli they find challenging and come up with strategies to support them.


If you want more information on sensory input, you can reference “The Out-of-Sync Child” by Carol Stock Kranowitz. 



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