HOW SENSORY PREFERENCES IMPACT BEHAVIOR
Thursday March 31, 2016

HOW SENSORY PREFERENCES IMPACT CHILDREN’S BEHAVIOR

by Elise Spronk, Occupational Therapist 

eliseMy name is Elise, and I hate peas.  I don’t like the texture of peas. The thought of skin around the mushy inside is repulsive to me. Thus, I have avoided peas since vomiting over pea soup in Kindergarten. The fear is real… to me.

For those of you who love peas, you don’t understand, and you often try to convince me that I won’t taste them or feel them in my mouth.

You are wrong.

I can detect one pea in a potluck-sized bowl of macaroni salad and in a mouth full of soup. And as a result, I go into a flight, fright, or fight response.

When it comes to peas (and several other things), I am a SENSORY AVOIDER.  A sensory avoider is one who doesn’t need a lot of sensory input to react and often manages the environment or the situation to avoid that sensory input. Some ways in which you might see this in your kids includes if they:

  1. Are picky eaters: They might prefer one texture, color, or basic flavors
  2. Cover their ears or make more noise at noise with loud sounds like vacuum, blender, or hand dryer
  3. Avoid touch: They aren’t a “cuddly” or “huggy” kid
  4. Hate tags and seams in clothing
  5. Have a difficult time transitioning clothing between the seasons
  6. Avoid messy activities like playing in the mud or sandbox or painting or playdough
  7. Walk on their toes
  8. Dislike having people too close
  9. Refuse to take a shower or bath
  10. Over-respond to pain: Everything hurts!

Because I’m an adult in charge of my own eating habits, I can avoid peas, and it really doesn’t negatively impact my world anymore.  However, that wasn’t always the case, and it’s not always the case for our sensory avoiding kids. Often times, sensory avoiding children are placed into situations that don’t match their sensory preferences. Sometimes that is unavoidable, because there are times when you have to just eat the peas, but other times there are ways to deal with their sensory preferences to avoid an outbreak. For me, that means choosing to make corn for my family and not taking that pea salad at the church potluck.

So now that I’ve told you about one sensory preference, let me share a little about three others. According to the Sensory Profile (Dunn, 1999), there are four sensory preferences:

  • Sensation Avoiding (That’s me with peas!)
  • Sensitivity to Stimuli
  • Low/Poor Registration
  • Sensory Seeking

SENSITIVITY TO STIMULI: Like sensation avoiders, those scoring in the sensitivity to stimuli category also don’t need much sensory input to generate a response (low neurological threshold). However, in contrast to the avoiders, they are passive in meeting the threshold. This means they aren’t having outbursts or withdrawing, but rather they are drawn to the newest stimulus that presents itself and often appear distracted or hyperactive. They may be cautious to proceed because of fear that they missed something while distracted by new stimuli, or they might become upset either by their own difficulties with tracking tasks or with others who are interrupting them.  You might notice this in your children if they:

  1. Notice when the air conditioning kicks in and get distracted by it
  2. Pay attention to everything their desk buddy/neighbor is doing
  3. Can’t complete multiple-step instructions
  4. Fidget with clothing, for example shoe laces, tags, strings
  5. Have a difficult time with worksheets that have a lot of visual information on them

SENSORY SEEKERS: Sensory seekers have a high need for sensory input and make sure that their high threshold is met by actively seeking it out. Behaviors indicative of sensory seeking include being active, continuously engaging, fidgety, and excitable. They may seem to lack consideration for safety when playing. You might notice this in your child through these actions:

  1. Spinning
  2. Climbing on everything or climbing too high
  3. Crashing into things like people, furniture or walls
  4. Licking or chewing inedible things
  5. Playing with food
  6. Eating messily or overstuffing their mouth
  7. Running barefoot
  8. Not sitting still at their desk
  9. Smelling everything, even bad smells
  10. Failing to monitor their own volume

LOW REGISTRATION: Like sensory seekers, those with low registration have a high need for sensory input in order to respond. However, they are passive in the process and don’t seek out input. They may appear tired or disinterested, very likely because their sensory experiences aren’t intense enough for them to notice and respond. Typically, these aren’t the kids causing any problems and Low Registration can often go undetected until preschool or early elementary years when difficulties learning or following directions may appear.

  1. IMG_8582Day dreaming during instructional time at school
  2. Lag behind the group during in physical activities
  3. Don’t dress appropriately for the weather
  4. Incontinence issues
  5. Have a difficult time starting a task

Often times, I meet parents who may think our therapy goal is to either change their child’s sensory preferences or their own. However, that isn’t the case at all. Our goal is to understand each other’s preferences and discover how we can all live somewhat harmoniously under one roof.

Through understanding we can offer the right amount and type of sensory input, providing a healthy, safe environment in which the child has a better opportunity to behave and play appropriately, perform academically, and complete daily living skills.

There is much hope in understanding.


Elise Spronk will be hosting a free developmental screen day on:

Monday, September 10 from 9:30 AM – 11:30 AM

Kinetic Edge in Pella / 604 Liberty St., Suite 227

How do you reserve a spot?

Email us or call our office to register using our toll-free number, 866-588-0230. Don’t hesitate to sign up. Time slots are limited and will fill up quickly.

So if you would like to attend, schedule now! Call 866-588-0230 or email us.