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The Role of the Senses. Sensory Processing/Integration Disorder & Autism Jessica Nyberg, B.S. The Senses at a Glance. Tactile- touch (cold, hard, dull, pain, hot) Proprioceptive- where our body parts are in relation to each other and how they are moving

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The Role of the Senses

Sensory Processing/Integration Disorder & Autism

Jessica Nyberg, B.S.


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The Senses at a Glance

  • Tactile- touch (cold, hard, dull, pain, hot)

  • Proprioceptive- where our body parts are in relation to each other and how they are moving

  • Vestibular- where our bodies are in space, whether we or our surroundings are moving, tells about speed and direction of moving

  • Auditory- sound

  • Visual- sight

  • Olfactory- smell


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What is Sensory Processing?

  • The ability to receive sensory messages & organize them effortlessly into the “right” behavioral & physiological responses

  • Example: The smell of burning food from the kitchen

    • Automatic behavioral response: stop what we are presently doing to check food

    • Automatic physiological response: our heart rate increases & develop a fine sweat


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What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

  • When sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses and daily routines and activities are disrupted as a result

  • Example: At a playground, a child loses his balance and begins to fall

    • His nervous system doesn’t recognize the sensory input that he’s falling

    • He doesn’t put his arms out to break his fall

    • Possibility of resulting injury


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Levels of Responsiveness

  • Under-Responsive, “hyposensitive”:

    • Exhibits less of a response to sensory information, takes longer to respond to sensory input, or requires more intense or long-lasting sensory input before they are moved to action

  • Over-Responsive, “hypersensitive”:

    • Respond more intensely, more quickly, and/or for a longer time to sensory information


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Levels of Responsiveness

  • Sensory Seeking

    • Having a nearly insatiable craving for sensory experiences and actively seeking sensation, often in ways that are not socially acceptable

    • Easily confused with ADHD

    • If unable to seek out sensations, may become aggressive or angry


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Mix ‘n Match

  • Can have a variety of senses affected

  • Mixture of hyposensitivity, hypersensitivity, and/or sensory seeking

  • Soooo…

    • Can be hypersensitive with some senses, hyposensitive with others, and/or sensory seeking with other senses


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POP QUIZ!!!!!

  • What are the senses again…?

    • Tactile?

    • Vestibular?

    • Proprioception?


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What’s the Big Deal?

  • Dysfunctioning senses lead to problems with…

    • Attention & Learning

    • Sleep

    • Eating

    • Social interaction

    • Health & Safety

    • Life in the Community

    • ANXIETY levels



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Signs & Symptoms: Proprioception

  • Hypersensitive

    • Does not like being upside down

    • Has trouble manipulating small objects

    • Avoids weight-bearing activities like running & jumping

  • Hyposensitive

    • unaware of bodily sensations (hunger, need for bathroom)

    • bumps into or leans on people/objects

  • Sensory Seeking

    • constantly moving

    • seeks out rough-housing


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Signs & Symptoms: Vestibular

  • Hypersensitive

    • Does not enjoy playing on swings or slides

    • Has difficulty walking on unstable or uneven surfaces

    • Fearful of heights

    • Difficulty with stairs

  • Hyposensitive

    • May not notice when falling & not extend hands or feet to protect himself

    • Doesn’t get dizzy easily

  • Sensory Seeking

    • Seeks out swinging or sliding

    • Adventurous- climbers & jumpers

    • Partakes in body rocking

    • Has trouble sitting still


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Signs & Symptoms: Tactile

  • Hypersensitive (Does NOT like):

    • Certain textures/clothing (wool, fur, jeans, carpet)

    • Having messy hands (glue, dirt, stickiness)

    • Having hair or nails cut

    • Certain food textures

    • Hugs or being touched

  • Hyposensitive

    • Doesn’t seem to notice getting hurt

  • Sensory Seeking

    • Constantly touching objects

    • Mouths objects

    • Prone to self-injury (hand biting, head banging)

    • Likes pressure & tight clothes

    • Enjoy hugs & roughhousing


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Signs & Symptoms: Visual

  • Hypersensitive

    • Does not like bright lights

    • Distracted by irrelevant or small details

    • Avoids direct eye contact

  • Hyposensitive

    • Experience trouble figuring out what or where objects are

  • Sensory Seeking

    • Fixates (“stims”) on moving parts or fingers

    • Stare at bright lights or reflections


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Signs & Symptoms: Auditory

  • Hypersensitive

    • Does not like loud noises (vacuum, malls)

    • Scared of unexpected noises (bells, sirens, alarms)

    • Distracted by background noise in a classroom

    • Will cover their ears

    • Make repetitive noises to cover other disturbing noises

  • Hyposensitive

    • doesn’t respond to name

  • Sensory Seeking

    • likes high TV and music volume

    • create sounds themselves for stimulation (tapping, banging, humming)


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Hypersensitivity In Their Own Words

  • “There are certain things I touch that hurt my hands…There are times when I walk and the air brushing past my hands is a source of pain.”

  • “The fear and anticipation of noises that hurt the ears is often the cause of many bad behaviors and tantrums.”

  • “I hate to feel my own skin against itself. This means I have to wear pajamas to bed or put a sheet in between my legs so they do not come into direct contact with each other.”


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Hypersensitivity: How we can help

  • PAY ATTENTION- ID disturbing stimuli & reduce, eliminate, or provide sensory aids

  • Desensitize by providing a sensory diet (small amounts of exposure)

  • Monitor the number of simultaneous stimuli & reduce irrelevant stimuli

  • If possible, warn or prime a child about upcoming situations (fire alarms, trip to the malls)

  • Self-calming: provide a “get away” space to retreat to when overwhelmed with calming activities available


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Environmental Changes for the Hypersensitive Child

  • Tactile: select textures for clothing, bedding, towels, upholstery, and carpet that are not uncomfortable for the child

  • Proprioceptive: provide tools for heavy work

    • Jungle gym, trampoline, weighted vest

  • Vestibular: provide equipment for slow and rhythmic stimulation

    • Rocking chair, glider

  • Visual: soft lighting, muted colors, organized & uncluttered

  • Auditory: provide a background of “white noise” or calming music (headphones), prime a child before loud noises (fire alarm, vacuum)


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Hyposensitivity in Their Own Words

  • “My senses would sometimes become dull to the point that I could not clearly see or hear, and the world around me would seemingly cease to exist.”

  • “Oftentimes, I would be aware that my body hurt somewhere, but I would be unable to pinpoint what was hurting.”

  • “I never knew my relative position in the surrounding or situation…I had no concept of my body. My hands were mere objects which I used to pick and throw.”


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Environmental Changes for the Hyposensitive Child

  • Vestibular: provide equipment for fast/rotary movement

    • Self-spinning devices, swings, mini-trampoline

  • Tactile: use direct tactile stimulation throughout the day, used textured towels, different seating textures, noticeable textured clothing

  • Proprioceptive: heavy work, jungle gym, weighted vests, exercise bands, mini-trampoline

  • Visual: bright room colors, many & bright lights, visually stimulating décor

  • Auditory: changing background noise, avoid monotonous sounds

  • Self-alerting: gum chewing, sour candy, exercise ball instead of a chair


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Environmental Changes for the Sensory Seeking Child

  • Tactile: deep pressure, provide items for stimulation- fidget toys, stress balls

  • Proprioceptive: heavy lifting, exercise bands, pushing, pulling, running, jumping, rope climbing, bike/tricycle riding, sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair

  • Vestibular: swings, slides, jungle gym

  • Visual: order & organization, minimize clutter

  • Auditory: headphones with steady calm music


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Paying Attention to Their Senses

  • Group Work! 

  • Each group will be given a sense: identify a potential trigger at:

    • Home

    • School

    • In the Community

  • Come up with at least one sensory intervention strategy to address the associated issues


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Great Resources (References)

  • Consult with an Occupational Therapist

  • The Out-of-Sync Child, Carol Stock Kranowitz

  • The Out of Sync Child Has Fun, Carol Stock Kranowitz

  • Sensational Kids, Lucy Jane Miller


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