Sensory Issues

What are sensory issues?

We all have sensory systems which help us interact with the world around us.  These systems can be overloaded at times, lights can be too bright, sounds can be annoyingly noisy, smells can distract us and so on.  Some people with disabilities, particularly autism, may be extra sensitive to the input from their sensory systems.  Possibly, this is due to the attentional part of their brain having trouble keeping them focused on what they should be focusing on.

We all know how irritating it is if we are trying to concentrate on, for example, writing something when loud noises keep coming from the next room and distracting us.  This appears to be an even bigger issue for many of our special needs kids.  It seems as if our students’ sensory systems are disorganised and inefficient and fluctuate in activity throughout the day, which leads to:

  • difficulties regulating and sustaining optimal levels of arousal to learn
  • attentional difficulties
  • poor recovery
  • poor adaptability and flexibility
  • hypersensitivity to sensation which means we need to know –

How the child processes sensory information

What sensory preferences they are attracted to

What sensory sensitivities they avoid

We can use sensory preferences to –

  • soothe and calm
  • arouse when slow and sluggish

The more we understand how a person experiences sensations, the better we are in accommodating and compensating for their vulnerabilities.

It is important for us to gain an understanding of different type of sensory issues – how the child processes sensory information, what sensory preferences they are attracted to and what sensory sensitivities they avoid. This will allow us to modify the environment to minimize sensory overload and change our interaction style to foster engagement and build learning opportunities around their sensory preferences. We can use sensory preferences to soothe and calm when overwhelmed and to arouse when slow and sluggish. The more we understand how a person experiences sensations, the better we are in accommodating and compensating for their vulnerabilities.


Please click to download a Sensory Diet Checklist for you to print and fill in which will give you some ideas of your student’s sensitivities.  Once you have filled this in you will make more sense of the following descriptions and definitions.

Hyper- or hypo- sensitivity

Hypersensitivity means registering stimuli at a much greater sensitivity e.g. hearing intensities of sound that many people barely register, sense smells that many others barely notice, feel light stimulation on their bodies which can be distracting and overwhelming and sometimes painful. These people often avoid sensory input and become more easily dysregulated.

Hyposensitivity means stimulation is not noticed or registered until it reaches a much higher intensity than average. These people may seek out additional stimulation for example, they might like noises, deep pressure or constant movement.

Sensory defensiveness

If a student is over sensitive in one or more senses, this may cause uncomfortable and sometime painful sensations.  When the outside world is constantly assaulting their nervous system, they can be on high alert and always anxious.  They need to control everything that occurs around them to control the level of stimulation.  This is usually typical for a student who has hyper sensitivity. If someone has too much sensory input they can eventually become overloaded which can lead to hyperarousal and anxiety.  Needless to say, kids with disabilities who have over-sensitive sensory systems can get to this stage more easily.

Effects of sensory overload

  • delayed processing
  • resistance and oppositional attitude
  • shutdown
  • meltdown
  • emotionally dysregulated

So, you can see that sensory input needs to be kept at a level which does not lead to anxiety and arousal levels increasing.  Students with this happening may appear resistant and oppositional and have a high need to control everything. If overstimulated, the child may have a meltdown or act out.

Problems integrating multiple senses

Students with disabilities, particularly autism, often are able to process input from only one sense at a time.  So they need to block out/ignore everything except one sense in order to focus.

Some kids prefer one dominant sense that they use to interpret their world

  • they may touch or manipulate everything they are processing
  • smell everything before they eat
  • a visual processor may cover their ears to block out noise so they can focus on vision

Perhaps it is becoming clearer that getting the sensory stuff right for a student is a good idea as otherwise it can get in the way of learning and attention.  We need to identify how each sense works for the student and set up a sensory diet for them which will provide the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day.

What are the sensory systems we are talking about and what to do about them?

There are 5 sensory systems:

1. Vestibular system – involved with movement and helps us know where your head and body are in space in relation to the earth’s gravity.  This system isn’t working too well when you are dizzy.

Sensitivity looks like:

  • Enjoyment of movement e.g. swings
  • Continually fidgeting with items
  • Continually getting up and moving around the classroom

(Child is often hyposensitive so needs a lot of this)

Ideas for the Classroom

  • Placing work on the floor which will require them to lean over and pick up
  • Sitting on a fitball to do some tasks
  • Standing at Smartboard to complete activities
  • Changes in positions between tasks e.g. sitting at desk, sitting on floor

Ideas for Sensory Breaks

  • Running
  • Wheelbarrow walks
  • Animal walks
  • Climbing on equipment
  • Taking messages to other rooms
  • Swings
  • Bouncing on fitball
2. Proprioceptive system – awareness of bodily parts relative to one another. Proprioception is the sense of knowing where our joints and muscles are. This helps us plan our movements.  This sense is not working well when your arm ‘goes to sleep’.

Sensitivity looks like

  • Enjoyment of vibrating objects e.g. massager
  • Leaning or pushing heavily against objects
  • Enjoys firm hugs/deep pressure

(Child is often hyposensitive so needs a lot of this)

Ideas for the Classroom

  • Lying on floor propped on elbows to complete tasks
  • Carrying boxes, equipment,
  • Compression garments e.g. weighted vest
  • Catching and throwing weighted beanbags/balls
  • Helping stack chairs
  • Helping clean classroom e.g. wiping tables, whiteboards, sweeping

Sensory Breaks

  • Joint compressions/deep pressure massage
  • Use a theraband to pull with arms or kick with feet
  • Use of vibrating objects
  • Feather Brush

The effects of a sensory diet are usually immediate AND cumulative

Activities that perk up children or calm them down are not only effective in the moment; they actually help to restructure your child’s nervous system over time so that they are better able to:

tolerate sensations and situations they find  challenging

regulate their alertness and increase attention span

limit sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behaviours

handle transitions with less stress

Some useful equipment for sensory breaks:


egg chair

swivel board

fitness equipment

activity wall

3. Touch – sensation obtained through sensory cells in the skin.  May be pleasant or unpleasant.  Wearing clothes may prickle or irritate.

Sensitivity looks like –

  • touching others and objects
  • continually fidgeting with items
  • enjoys when people touch them
  • enjoys messy play

(Child may be hyper- or hyposensitive)

Ideas for the Classroom

  • shaving cream
  • playdoh
  • make allowances for wearing of correct clothes
  • use objects rather than written work where possible, e.g. maths

Ideas for Breaks

  • building blocks
  • toys of various textures
  • cars and trains on tracks
4. Auditory – hearing and listening.  May be sensitive to some frequencies g. hum of electrical equipment, fluorescent lights.

Sensitivity looks like –

  • Distracted or has trouble functioning in a noisy environment
  • Becomes distressed during large gathering activities
  • Prefers quiet environments
  • Seeks own auditory input
  • Vocalises loudly, humming, singing/making other noises

(Child is often hypersensitive so needs less of this)

Ideas for the Classroom

  • Quiet space for work
  • Work away from other kids
  • Use one sense at a time, talk but don’t expect student to look
  • Headphones

Ideas for Breaks

  • Quiet area to sit
  • Recess away from other students
  • Headphones and music
5. Visual – seeing and perception. May be sensitive to or attracted to bright lights, flickering, easily distracted by movement.

Sensitivity looks like

  • Looks away from tasks to notice all other activity in the room
  • Becomes overstimulated by visual objects
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Seeks auditory input they can control e.g. pictures close to face, watches toys and videos that spin

(Child is often hypersensitive so needs less of this)

Ideas for the Classroom

  • Be aware of possible light issues
  • Move away from windows and distraction
  • Simple plain surroundings
  • Turned away from rest of class for work

Ideas for Breaks

  • Dark corner, tent, cubby
  • Quiet corner of playground for break times

Arousal levels and what to do about them

In connection with sensory issues, it is timely to bear in mind that a child may be under or over aroused and this might change throughout the day. To remind yourself about arousal levels go back to the What is Behaviour and What is its Function section.

Low arousal
  • poor awareness and low sensitivity to stimulation
  • misses environmental cues
  • slow processing
  • acts if they don’t hear
  • misses gestures and cues
  • sedentary

What to do about low arousal

  • increase the use of visual supports (see Visual Supports section)
  • structure the environment
  • give time to respond
  • careful encouragement to try new experiences
  • generous break times to move around
High arousal
  • heightened awareness
  • will seek out input
  • frequently moving, jumping, spinning touching

What to do about high arousal

  • provide sensory experiences frequently
  • may need to limit excitatory experiences
  • plenty of breaks away from work

These states may fluctuate throughout the day.

When you are ready you can move on to the NEXT SECTION- TASK ANALYSIS