Understanding Sensory: Over-Responsive and Under-Responsive

There are 2 types of reactions to sensory input - over-responsive and under-responsive. Let's take a look at each one!


Under-responsive is when a child shows little to no response when receiving sensory input. They may take a longer time to respond and require more intense input. This is also known as Hypo Responsiveness. These children are also known as Sensory Seekers because they require more input to properly interpret information from their environment and will seek it out.


Over-responsive means that the child is very aware of information received through their senses. This is also known as a Hyper Response. These children are also known as Sensory Avoiders because they are so overwhelmed by their senses that they avoid situations that could overstimulate them.


Sensory Processing is when the body takes input from the environment via its senses, and it is interpreted by the brain. The brain then produces an appropriate response. For example, if you are in third grade and the fire alarm goes off, you hear an unusual sound. You look at your teacher who says you need to line up just like you do in the drill. Child number one with a typical sensory system quietly gets up and stands in line. Child number two with an under or hypo response will get up, run to get into line, touch the wall, or bump into other children who are lined up already. Child number three who presents with an over or hyper response will place their hands over their ears, feel an increase in their heart rate, and might feel the flight or flight response.


When the drill is over, the child with the typical sensory system will return to their seat. The child with the under-responsive or hypo response will be overwhelmed because they were reprimanded for having to stand outside when they have a difficult time with it. They usually seek input by crashing, bumping, or touching people and objects secondary to their low threshold for pain and awareness. The third child who is over-responsive or hyper-response will have an emotional response they can present with crying and be on alert that the alarm can go off again. They might feel upset because their routine was broken.


Children who present as sensory seekers during recess will jump off the slide or monkey bars while the sensory avoider sits quietly in the sandbox. Both children require assistance, one child is just more visually noticeable that the other.


So, how do you help a child facing either of these issues? The good news is Occupational Therapists are able to rewire the brain's way of interpreting sensory input so that the child can be and feel safer in their environments. Through guided sensory play/work, children begin to feel better.


A child who is hyporesponsive will benefit from “heavy” work such as wheelbarrow walking, crab walking, push-ups, using a weighted ball, pillow fighting, etc. They start to understand the input in their muscles and tendons. They demonstrate a decrease in negative behaviors and improve their attention.


A child who is hyperresponsive benefits from desensitization techniques such as using background noise or headphones to help decrease auditory stimuli. Work on improving their vestibular input to allow them to feel safe in unbalanced environments such as playground equipment.


If you have concerns that your child faces neither of these issues, consult with your primary care physician to get help with the next steps.


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