Sensory Sensitivities: A Therapist's Insight

Sensory blog
Taheera Khan

Date: 19/09/23

The below blog shares a therapist's insight into sensory sensitivities and how they might impact individuals.

What are sensory sensitivities?

Sensory sensitivities can often be referred to as over responsivity or hyper reactivity. This is when a person shuts down when there is too much sensory input or avoids situations with a lot of sensory information. We use our senses to make sense of the world around us, but some of the people we support can find some sensory stimuli bothersome or too overwhelming. Someone who experiences sensory sensitivities may demonstrate caution or fear when trying new things due to the worry regarding the sensory experiences this new thing could include.

Sensory sensitivities can impact on an individual’s ability to engage with everyday activities and they may experience sensitivities in one or multiple sensory systems. Here are a few examples listed below:

  • An individual may experience sensitivities in their taste system which may result in them only eating familiar foods.
  • They may have sensitivities to particular smells and therefore dislike fragrances from perfume or bath products.
  • They may like wearing hats or caps or sunglasses because they experience sensitivities in their visual sense, alternatively, they may dislike bright lights or sunshine and therefore blinks frequently or squints/ closes their eyes.
  • They may startle easily at unexpected sounds due to sensitivities in their auditory sense (hearing), or they may be easily distracted by background noises such as a lawnmower outside, an air conditioner, a refrigerator or buzz from fluorescent lights.
  • They may experience touch sensitivities which can result in them not liking having messy hands, struggling with toe and fingernail cutting or haircuts or being ‘fussy’ with food textures. They may also be irritated by certain clothing textures, labels, seams and socks or avoid new clothes altogether.
  • They may also avoid playing on swings and slides due to sensitivities in their vestibular sense (our movement and balance sense).

How can your team/therapy support someone?

As the sensitivities that the individual experience are unique to the person, we take a holistic approach to meet their needs and therefore interventions will differ. Following assessment, there are a number of ways in which the Occupational Therapy team can support.

One approach may be reviewing the environment to ensure that it is as ‘sensory friendly’ as possible. The Occupational therapists may also decide to introduce a sensory diet, which is a set of physical activities and accommodations designed to meet an individual’s sensory needs. The idea of a sensory diet is to include personalised activities to assist the nervous system to feel calm and organised. When the nervous system is calm and organised the individual may be more likely to tolerate additional sensory stimuli.

In addition to these interventions, the Occupational Therapists support individuals through the use of group or 1:1 based therapy sessions. These sessions would consist of providing sensory rich activities to stimulate the development of movement and balance (vestibular system) and improve feedback to muscles and joints (proprioceptive system). These types of activities can help individuals to develop their skills and confidence with their body. Environmental considerations and activities rich in sensory input, including big body movements, can have an organising effect on one’s nervous system and, therefore, help them to feel calm and organised and ready to engage in daily occupations.

We have seen many successes in using these interventions. For example a student that due to the severity of his sensitivities, engaged in self-injurious behaviours. However, with a highly individualised sensory diet and environmental considerations, these behaviours significantly reduced. We have also supported many students who have had difficulties accessing the class environment due to sensory sensitivities. With the support of specific strategies, they have been reintroduced to the classroom and can now engage with class based tasks with their peers.

Are there any myths you would like to dispel that surround it?

Myth 1: ‘Individuals who experience sensory sensitives are sensitive to everything.’ Reality: The people we support are all unique. Some may be sensitive to the information that comes in through their senses but this may not be in every sensory system. For example, they may be sensitive to sound but display no sensitivities in regards to their taste, so they may avoid noisy environments but they are able to eat a range of foods.

Myth 2: ‘Individuals with sensory sensitivities are over-reacting.’ Reality: This is not true. Individuals are reacting to sensory stimuli which others may not notice and this can cause them to feel overwhelmed, upset and agitated. Is it a true response and having too much sensory information to process can lead them to ‘shut down’. Some sensory stimuli can even be painful to them and this should be considered and supported before thinking an individual is ‘over-reacting’.

Myth 3: ‘Sensory sensitivities only impact on five senses.’ Reality: We often think about five senses- sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch; but there are other senses too. The sixth and seventh senses control body awareness (proprioception) and balance and spatial orientation (the vestibular sense). Individuals who experience sensitivities to movement may require additional support with their motor skills or support to engage in everyday activities which involve movement.

Myth 4: ‘An individual who experiences sensory sensitivities can control their responses.’ Reality: An individual that experiences sensory sensitivities may have difficulties responding appropriately to sensory input. Some individuals may have a bank of useful strategies to support them but for some, these responses are an ‘in-the-moment’ response, not a lack of self-control. For instance, an individual that is sensitive to sound may try to get away from this stimulation because it can trigger sensory overwhelm, much like a response of pulling your hand away from an open flame.

*Written by Bianca Moore, Occupational Therapist.

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