Let’s talk about what it can look like when a child has a low sensory threshold. These are known as the sensory sensitive children, sensory avoiders, hypersensitive children. They often go into fight or flight mode. This sensory profile can also overlap with anxiety.
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Hi! Ok, in the last episode we talked about what exactly SPD is (if you haven’t listened to that, you may want to go back and listen to that one) and I promised I’d go a little deeper into each of the main SPD profiles.
I’m starting with the sensory profile that impacts me the most personally and one that I consider myself an expert in in my practice: a LOW sensory threshold, also known as being sensory over responsive, or you might also hear it referred to as sensory sensitive or a sensory avoider.
So when we talk about different sensory profiles, we are talking about sensory thresholds. Meaning, how much input a person’s nervous system can tolerate or needs in order to feel regulated.
To make it simpler, I like to use cups to represent sensory thresholds. A low sensory threshold is like having a small sensory cup. A child who is sensory over responsive, sensory sensitive or has a low sensory threshold has a small sensory cup- it can’t hold too much liquid before overflowing.
Imagine that the liquid and drips into the sensory cup is all of the sights, smells, sounds, feelings (basically sensory input) you encounter.
A completely empty sensory cup OR an overflowing sensory cup is when you’d see a dysregulated child.
You want a cup that’s filled just right- that would be like a regulated child.
So what exactly does it look like to have a low threshold or a small sensory cup?
This means that any kind of sensory input experienced throughout the day can add a drop, or a few drops to their sensory cup. When the cup overflows (from too much sensory input), that’s when you hit a sensory meltdown, or they go in to fight/flight or freeze mode and can appear dysregulated.
So, these children can’t tolerate much input at all. They reach their max capacity much faster and more often than neurotypical people, or people with a bigger sensory cup. They often experience the world as too loud, too fast, too hard, too sticky, too scary.
The important thing to know as parents is that it’s how the person perceives (through the way their brain processes it) the input that counts.
So, what’s considered loud to your child may not be loud at all to you. Maybe the sound of a sneeze is one drop in your sensory cup but it counts as 5 drops in your child’s cup because to them, it’s too loud.
To a child with a small sensory cup, the seams in socks or waistbands on their underwear can actually be painful and add 10 drops to their cup, but to us- we don’t even notice it, it may not even add to our sensory cup at all.
Some of the most common tasks that are hard for children with small sensory cups include:
Being sensitive to the feeling of fabrics in clothes.
Being sensitive to loud sounds or overstimulated from busy environments (like a lot of people talking).
Being sensitive to smells or tastes and so they can be picky eaters.
Being sensitive to touch, which could be showcased in their avoidance of- messy play, getting their hair brushed, hair cut, hair washed, brushing their teeth, really all of the grooming activities.
They could also be sensitive to movement- so they get carsick easily or are afraid of sings, bikes, scooters, escalators.
Or maybe you have a child who’s sensitive to the internal sense- interoception, and they are hyperaware of every tiny cramp or twinge of pain or discomfort.
Once you start looking all the sensory input as drops into a cup, you’ll quickly see how an after school meltdown can happen seemingly “out of nowhere” but really, it’s an accumulation of drops into their tiny sensory cup from the day, especially at school.
I mean, let’s think about it. Let’s imagine a typical, traditional standard classroom and how much sensory drops it can add to your child’s cup.
Bright fluorescent lights, lots of bright colors or any clutter from toys and crafts hanging around.
Sounds of: laughing, crying, cheering, clapping, chairs scraping the ground as they scoot in, alarms, dismissal bells, singing, announcements or toilets flushing.
The smells of: perfume, food, wet ground/grass if it rains.
The touch from: any clothes they’re wearing, unintentional bumps from peers standing or sitting next to them, messy glue or paint crafts, water play or sensory play, sand from the sandbox, wet shoes or pants from the rain… I could go on and on.
All the chaos and multisensory input from the playground, the lunch room… it’s really a lot when you think about it. And consider a child with a tiny sensory cup… by the time you pick them up, their cup is already full to the brim, if not overflowing already and they are just prime for a meltdown or general dysregulation.
Whether it’s the wrong color cup, the wrong chair, the way you handed them the already peeled banana but they wanted it unpeeled… it sends them into a huge meltdown or dysregulated spiral and you’re thinking “what? Why are they freaking out about this?” But in reality… it’s not that trigger of the way you peeled the banana or giving them the wrong cup…. It’s the fact tha they are completely overstimulated from school and this was what overflowed their sensory cup.
One important thing to consider when you’re thinking about a child who has sensory sensitivities, or a small sensory cup is that something that once started out as a sensory sensitivity can eventually morph into more of a learned avoidance or learned fear and anxiety of the trigger.
So let’s say your child has sensory sensitivities as a toddler and the texture of avocados made them gag, and everytime you wanted your child to try avocado, it would end in them crying or having a big reaction.
Eventually, over time, your child’s brain will store that information, the information that “avocado = yucky texture = gag = cry” and then it will create a shortcut to the path from avocado = crying. Then the brain starts to learn and anticipate the negative reaction from avocados and instead of actually waiting until the avocado is in the mouth, the brain will associate the look of the avocado, maybe the plate it was served on or the spoon it was used on… or even generalize other foods that look the same… and it will associate these with something negative (as a protective response). What you have left there then is an anxiety or a learned fear of avocados. So now the child might cry, throw, have a full on huge meltdown or reaction just at the sight or mention of avocados.
This learned avoidance and fear response stemming from an original sensory sensitive is common and can happen for any of the sensory sensitivities your child experiences- their brain takes the sensory trigger, the thing that adds a ton of drops to their cup and sets off the fight or flight reaction… and then it remembers the trigger and the environment and context it was in… and starts to create a learned fear or avoidance fo it to protect you from going near it again.
That’s why sensory sensitivity and anxiety overlap so much. And that’s why it’s SO important to utilize a just right challenge approach for your child rather than “throwing them in the deep end” with an “oh you’ll get used to it” tough love approach.
I’ll definitely talk about best ways to use the just right challenge and best support for these children in a future episode.
If you want to learn more about the just right challenge, make sure you head to my instagram page and find the highlight bubble called just right challenge. It’s a great place to start.
Alright! Until next time! Thanks for being here.