Sensory needs

Find out more about sensory needs and what you can do to help your child.

What are sensory needs?

Sensory needs can mean that children find it difficult to interpret or respond to different sensory input. They may find it difficult to work out what is happening inside and outside their bodies. Children with sensory needs might be:

  • avoidant - they can be very anxious about sensory input
  • seeking sensory input - wanting more than other children
  • a combination of the two – avoiding some sensory input and seeking out others.

All children have sensory likes and dislikes, but for children with sensory needs, it becomes very distressing and makes daily life challenging.

What types of sensory need are there?

We don’t just have five senses. There are eight sensory systems in the body. Some children have difficulties with all of them. Others may only struggle with one or two. 

Below are some notable difficulties. This is not intended to be a complete list and other examples will arise.

Auditory (hearing)

  • Distressed by noise.
  • Noticing sounds that others don’t, such as the hum of electrical items.
  • Easily distracted by background noise.

Olfactory (smell)

  • Distressed by unusual smells.
  • Very sensitive to changes in laundry detergent, shampoo and so on.
  • Difficulties eating due to smell of food.

Oral (taste)

  • Constantly mouthing objects which could prove a choking hazard. Babies do this to learn about the world, but a child with sensory needs may do this when they are older too.
  • Difficulties eating due to texture or taste of food.
  • Distress when brushing teeth.

Tactile (touch)

  • Difficulties with “messy play”
  • Needing to wash hands often
  • Being very ‘particular’ about clothes due to labels, materials, seams and so on which may cause issues with getting or staying dressed.
  • Seeking out particular textures and touching things a lot.

Visual (sight)

  • Avoiding unusual lighting.
  • Seeking out lots of visual stimulation, such as bright or flashing lights.

Vestibular (balance)

  • Finding balance difficult – they may fall over more. often than other children their age.
  • Being very wary of, or having a fixation on, swings, roundabouts and so on.
  • Spinning when playing.

Proprioceptive (where the body is in space)

  • Often running into other people, furniture and so on.
  • Having no awareness of their own strength or weight, for example when playing with others they may hurt them accidentally.
  • Lack of safety awareness (more than other children their age).
  • Needing to climb more than other children.

Interoceptive (what is happening inside the body)

  • Having an unusually low or high sensitivity to pain.
  • Not knowing when they are unwell or about to be sick.
  • Not knowing when they need the toilet – they may have accidents at a later age than most children.
  • Constantly eating when not hungry, or not eating enough because they don’t recognise hunger.
  • Getting dehydrated due to not drinking enough.

What can adults do?

  • Observe to find out what sensory needs there are and record them.
  • Provide ‘safe’ objects in an easily accessible container for them to explore with their mouths or throw across a room.
  • Provide other sensory experiences for the child to access, encouraging exploration using hands, feet, ears, eyes.
  • Sensory bag containing things like stress balls, whistle or kazoo, unbreakable mirror, 2 footprints that can be placed on the floor to jump on, scented pieces of material.
  • Making sure children have plenty of opportunity to climb and run about.
  • Encourage children to take an object from one activity to the next activity to act as a ‘bridge’. For example, if the child is engaged in play dough, take a piece of play dough to small world play.

What support might your child’s setting provide?

  • Flexibility about start and finish times to child’s session to avoid the busiest times. This should be jointly agreed with parents.
  • Provide time for observation of child.
  • Communication about sensory needs at home and at the setting.
  • Flexibility around routine at setting, for example:
    • Does child have to come and play indoors first thing?
    • Could they start their session outside where it may be quieter and less overwhelming?
  • Sensory toys
  • Provide ear defenders or sunglasses for child to use if needed.
  • Access to choice boards for child to make simple choices using visual cues.
  • Provide sensory experiences which child does not need to touch but can experience.
  • Ensure child has access to messy play without too many children to reduce the chance of being exposed to touching substance until they are ready.
  • Don’t insist on child wearing an apron, many children are put off exploring as they don’t want to wear stiff plastic apron – this can cause a sensory overload for the child.
  • Alternatives to messy play – plastic bottles or laminated pouches of glitter, syrup, sand, paint and so on.

More information

Parents and professionals can contact the Sensory Support Team for help and advice about how to support the child with their sensory needs.