Sensory Strategies for Under-Responders, Part 2

Last month in The Under-Responsive Side of SPD, Part 1, I talked about the sensory modulation continuum and the specific needs of children with “isms” that are under-responsive to sensory input. This month, I’d like to provide you some answers to common questions about meeting the needs of our sensory under-responders.

Q: How often do under-responders need sensory input?

A: Toddlers and preschoolers need constant sensory input. Most kids will get this input on their own through play as long as we limit access to television and encourage active and creative play. In general, most 5-10 year olds do well with 10 minutes of physical activity every 60-90 minutes. Once kids are about 10 and older, a 10 minute sensory break every two hours works for most to meet their need for intense input. Additionally, ongoing access to sensory tools can serve to keep a child modulated between sensory breaks.

Sensory Break Activities

Q: What types of activities should be included in sensory breaks?

A: Under-responders need alerting/stimulating forms of sensory input. That can seem confusing because sensory seekers often appear to be very alert and revved up already! But what we are doing is helping them to get that extra intense input they need in order to reach their high threshold level which will then result in a release of our feel-good neurochemical like seratonin and dopamine. At that point, the children will appear calmer and more focused. The following activities serve as appropriate sensory breaks for both types of under-responders:

Younger Kids:

  • Crawling tunnel
  • “Follow the Leader” with a lot of crawling and rolling
  • Jumping off the couch into a pile of cushions
  • Spinning on a Sit ‘n Spin or in an office chair
  • Rolling back and forth on their tummies or backs on a large ball
  • Playing tug-of-war
  • “Tortilla Time” – being rolled up in a yoga mat and then rolling out when an adult pulls on the ends of the mat
  • Animal walks – crab walk, frog hop, snake slither, etc.

Older Kids:

  • Obstacle courses – use furniture present in the room to crawl around, roll across, climb over, and slither under.
  • Trampolines
  • Exercise bands or light weight lifting
  • “Heavy Work” chores – laundry, vacuuming, floor scrubbing
  • Push ups/ Sit ups, lunges
  • Bike riding or jogging
  • Sports

School Help
Q: What types of sensory tools help under-responders stay on task while at school?

A: The following strategies are helpful for most:

  • Sticking a strip of velcro underneath the desk for the child to rub as needed
  • Tying a piece of exercise band near the bottom of the front chair legs for kids to push and pull against with their feet
  • Seating alternatives like seat cushions, stability balls, straddling their chairs, or lying on their bellies with their work on a clipboard
  • “Fidget buckets” containing items such as Tangles, squishy balls, putty, scented items, (scented pencils, scent inhalers from Earth Solutions, or DIY containers that hold a cotton ball with a few drops of an essential oil on it)
  • Water bottles with a resistive valve (Camelbak bottles are great!), gum or a chewable pencil topper
  • Classical music and metronomes set to 60 beats per minute (great metronome apps available)

Q: What can teachers do to help meet the needs of under-responders?

A: Flexibility is the key. Teachers open to alternate positions and seating options, and who set up the classroom to accommodate multiple learning styles can make all the difference in the world. Offering choices can be very helpful to these kids, such as “Would you like to work at the table or would you rather stand up at the counter to finish your assignment?” These kinds of options encourage students to think about their learning styles and sensory needs and empower them to make good choices to meet their needs.

Home Help
Q: What can parents do to help meet the needs of their under-responsive children?

A: Encourage movement and activity! This is challenging because sensory seekers love to do all that we’ve been led to believe should be against the rules – running in the house, climbing on the furniture, and jumping on the bed! And we certainly do need rules for our kids. But setting up a basement or the child’s bedroom to be a “safe zone” for activity can be very beneficial. For instance, take away the bed frame so the child’s mattress lies directly on the floor. Now he can be allowed to jump on his bed all he wants!

For our more passive under-responders, encouraging movement has a different set of challenges. These kids tend to be couch-potatoes. Limiting television and computer/video game time will be a good first step in helping the children to become more active. For Christmas, think about giving your child a large ball (big enough to roll and bounce on) or a balance board. Filling your house with toys that require movement will help make being active more fun.

Summary
Learning to meet your child’s sensory needs can seem confusing and overwhelming at first. Keep it fun and simple by just focusing on encouraging movement and play. If your kids are active, you’re off to a great start! If you need more specific help in meeting your child’s needs, consult an occupational therapist.

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Gwen Wild, OTR/L About Gwen Wild, OTR/L

Gwen Wild is the owner of Sensational Brain Co. She is also on the faculty of Summit Professional Education and travels nationwide speaking on the topic of “Creating and Implementing Effective Sensory Diets for Children and Teens.”