The Under-Responsive Side of SPD, Part 1

Do you have a child who loves to crash, jump, bump, run, whirl and spin? A child who simply WILL NOT sit still?! Chances are you have a “sensory seeker”! Or do you instead have a child who is very “laid back,” sluggish, sedentary, tends to be a t.v./computer kid? In that case, chances are good you have a passive “under-responder.”

Often, when we think about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), we tend to think of the kids who can’t stand tags in their shirts, children who are picky eaters, or kids with motion sensitivity. These are signs of over-responsiveness to sensory input and while this is definitely one type of SPD, we cannot ignore their under-responsive peers.

When we are talking about over- and under-responsivity to sensory input, we are really talking about the specific skill of sensory modulation – the ability to make sense of sensory input and respond to it appropriately in order to stay organized and focused. Sensory modulation difficulties fall under the umbrella diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder.

What is Sensory Modulation (a.k.a. Sensory Regulation)?

Graphic Copyright Sensational Brain LLC

As this graphic shows, over-responders are at one end of the continuum. These kids are the ones who are bothered by everyday sensory input. At the other end of the continuum, we actually have two types of under-responsiveness. One type, our “passive under-responders” are the ones who need more sensory input than what they are getting but they tend to gravitate toward passive forms of sensory input and therefore often seem not to be fully engaged in their surroundings. These kids may appear to be day-dreamers and may have difficulty learning because information isn’t being processed as quickly as it should be.

The other type of under-responders are our “sensory seekers.” These kids also need more sensory input than what they get from daily life activities, but it’s almost like at some level they know that and therefore do all they can to get the extra input they need. Therefore they run, jump, spin and crash in an attempt to achieve the high level of sensory input that their brains need in order to release the “feel good” neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine which then allow them to become organized and focused.  However, sometimes within the confines of the classroom or the home environments, they are simply unable to achieve the intensity of input they really need… thus the non-stop movement.

What can we do for our Under-Responders?
It is helpful to remember that both our passive under-responders as well as our sensory seekers have the same underlying issues and actually they have the same treatment needs. So what is it that they need? MORE sensory input! Ideally, they will have access to the intense forms of input that will be the most beneficial for their sensory systems.

Our goal will be to satiate that need for input so then their brains will be free to focus on other things (academics, etc.) for a reasonable amount of time. For kids who need to move, we want to build extra movement into their routines. Other kids may need opportunities for intense tastes or smells. Still others may need lots of deep pressure and heavy work opportunities.  We often call the combination of these strategies that meet a child’s needs a “sensory diet.” Consult an occupational therapist  to help you figure out what types of sensory input will be the most meaningful for your kids with sensory under-responsivity.

What about kids who are a little of both – UNDER- and OVER-responsive?
This is actually quite common. Very few people are either OVER and/or UNDER-responsive to every type of sensory input. Most of us are a combination of over-responsiveness to two or three types of sensory input and under-responsiveness to two or three other forms of sensory input. Our sensory needs also vary from day-to-day depending on what else is going on in our lives – pain, stress, fatigue, etc.

Therefore, be prepared to be flexible with your child’s sensory diet and offer a variety of sensory strategies depending on what their needs are on that particular day. Again, this process can seem overwhelming at first and you will fare better with the support of an occupational therapist to guide you as you begin the process of helping your child learn to self-regulate.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next month: Sensory Strategies for Under-Responders!

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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.”

  • Jaclyn Ruiz

    I have two sensory sensitive kids, both girls, one age 5 and the other age two, both are sensory seekers but one is over responsive and the other is under responsive. All the tips are very helpful, and I would like more advice on how to customize a sensory diet for my girls. Maybe a go to activity list for which activities will be best suited to each girls needs. I purchased the brain works app for our Ipad, but I am not sure how to use it effectively yet. Any advice would be appreciated, thanks

  • Tara McClintick

    My kid swings from one end of the continuum to the other. He definitely has challenges with sensory modulation. I found it easiest to just have swings and trampolines in my house and yard, and lots of sensory toys around he’s free to utilize whenever he needs. At 17 though he still has major challenges, is this a life-long problem for some individuals? Thank-You for the ideas and information, I definitely can relate to this challenge! :)

  • sandy dennis

    My son is both at times he will jump and run down the hall.other days hes laying on the couch watching tv or on the computer.

  • Gwen Wild

    Sandy- Sounds like he is an under-responder who sometimes seeks the input he needs and other times doesn’t. Encourage the movement – that’s what he needs. Lots of outdoor play is the best!

  • Gwen Wild

    Tara – We typically don’t “outgrow” our sensory issues, we just learn to manage them and even make them work for us. Sensory preferences typically play a role in our career choices and our hobbies. Encourage your son to think about what types of jobs would be the best for his sensory needs. Also, for teens and adults, exercise is the best way to meet our sensory needs. Some people prefer low-stimulation forms of exercise like walking/jogging on a quiet road while others prefer high-stimulation exercise like social gyms and group classes. Help him find something that works for him. Best Wishes!

  • Gwen Wild

    Jaclyn – Email me at and I will help you figure out the BrainWorks app and give you some other resources as well. :)

  • Martianne Stanger

    I am definitely among the people challenged with an under- and over-responder so I look forward to part 2 of this to learn even more. Thank you.

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