Written Tiarne Pendlebury, Associate Clinical Lead Occupational Therapist
What is Sensory Modulation?
You may think, what is sensory modulation? Well, this is something we are all required to do every single day! Sensory modulation refers to our ability to organise and regulate our reactions to incoming sensory information. What we know about sensory input, is that this is all around us, wherever we may go and our brain is required to constantly make sense of all of this incoming information! This may come naturally to some, however some children are often still learning to make sense of some or all of this incoming information.
This incoming information is categorised into 8 different sensory systems which our brains are required to make sense of every day. This includes:
- The Auditory System: This refers to one’s ability to hear and make sense of the sounds around them.
- The Olfactory System: This is how we pick up on the odours in our environments and how we make sense of this information in our brain.
- The Visual System: This refers to one’s ability to interpret the surrounding environment using light in the visible spectrum reflected by the objects in our environments.
- Oral Sensory Processing: This refers to the input our brains receive from the mouth and jaw.
- The Tactile (Touch) System: This refers to one’s sense of touch and how we make sense of different types of touch.
- The Vestibular (Movement) System: The receptors for the vestibular system are located within our inner ear, and this is where we receive information on our balance and movement.
- The Proprioceptive System: This is where our brain receives incoming information from our joints and muscles to get information on where our bodies are in space and how our bodies move.
- The Interoceptive System: This is where our brain receives information from our internal organs and muscles to make sense of how our body is feeling on the inside.
Now, that’s a lot of information our brain is trying to make sense of in our day! A child needs to be able to respond appropriately to this incoming information to be able to make sense of the world around them. By being unable to make sense of this information, this can feel really dysregulating for the child and can impact on their daily function, attention to task and self-regulation across the day. This is why it is so important to ensure that your child is receiving the right sensory support to be able to maximise their potential across their environments!
When our brain experiences differences with processing particular types of sensory input, these responses can be categorized into two fancy terms called, sensory over-registration and sensory under-registration. These responses may occur with one type of input, or it may involve multiple senses.
Sensory over-registration means that the child is noticing this type of input A LOT! This can result in them doing everything they can to avoid this type of input, or they might appear to experience an emotional outburst over what might be considered something small.
Each child’s response to sensory over-registration challenges will present in a variety of different ways, however some common characteristics are as follows:
- Quick to experience a meltdown
- Reserved and cautious around others
- Prefers to keep to themselves
- Approaches new activities with extreme caution
- May experience a fight/ flight response frequently
Sensory under-registration is considered to be the complete opposite to sensory over-registration (Voss, 2013). This means that the child is missing this type of sensory input as it is coming into the brain. There are two ways a child can respond when they experience under registration. They might actively seek the sensory input they are missing or they might completely miss this type of input.
Each child’s response to sensory under-registration challenges will present in a variety of different ways, however some common characteristics to look out for are as follows:
- Constantly on the go
- Quick to experience a meltdown
- Difficulty sustaining attention to seated tasks
- Appear clumsy or experience difficulties with maintaining appropriate posture
- Difficulties with understanding where their body is in space
How OT can help?
An Occupational Therapist can help by having a detailed conversation with you about your child’s everyday functioning and how their sensory processing differences may be interfering with them reaching their potential. An Occupational Therapist would also work alongside the child and their family to identify individualised strategies to support the child with meeting their sensory needs across their day. The Occupational Therapist would then use these strategies to develop a Sensory Diet for the family to incorporate at home, school and in the community. A Sensory Diet is a funny term often used by Occupational Therapist’s to describe a tailored program of individualised sensory strategies implemented at regular intervals throughout the day to support a child with remaining calm, alert and regulated across their everyday environments. These strategies can assist the child to make more sense of this incoming sensory information and in turn, support them to maximise their potential in their daily activities.
The take home message here, is that each child is different and unique in their own way. It is important that we are tuning into how our children are reacting to the world around them and the impact this might be having on their everyday participation. If you have concerns regarding your child’s sensory modulation and you feel as though your child requires some additional support, we are here to support you and your child to maximise their potential.
Voss, A. (2013). Your Essential Guide to Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder [Ebook] (2nd ed., pp. 8-13, 22-24).