Connecting Through Our Senses: Understanding Sensory Preferences to Better Connect with Children
Is there anything better than a warm, tight hug, or the feeling of sand on the soles of our feet? Yes, there could be, if your sensory preferences say so!
Every person has a unique sensory system, which responds in its own way to the many experiences we encounter. Our responses to these experiences are known as ‘sensory preferences’ which shape how we feel and behave. When children are having difficulty processing sensory information, it can impact their learning, social skills, emotions, behaviour and everyday participation.
Sensory preferences are unique and should be celebrated and explored. When we understand both our own and our children’s preferences, we can better connect and engage with them in their world.
Our eight senses
We have eight senses (not five!) which process information during our daily activities, such as eating, dressing, playing, sleeping.
Touch (tactile) – sensed primarily through our skin, helping us to feel sensations such as temperature, vibration and pain.
Sight (visual) – sensed through our eyes to determine colour, light, shape and depth.
Sound (auditory) – sensed through our ears to determine what we hear.
Smell (olfactory) – sensed through our nose to determine what we smell.
Taste (gustatory) – sensed through our tongue to determine flavours.
Body awareness (proprioception) – sensed through our muscles, tendons and joints, which helps us to be aware of bodies and detect pressure and force.
Balance and movement (vestibular) – sensed through our inner ear, this helps us recognise where our body is in space and keep our bodies upright.
Internal body cues (interoception) – sensed when we are hungry, thirsty, or need to use the toilet.
Regulating senses as an adult
As adults, we have developed the skills to manage our sensory needs in daily activities and take steps to make sure our environments are ‘just right’ to engage in meaningful tasks. For example, to draft an article like this, you might consider working in a quiet space, clearing your desk from clutter, taking regular movement breaks, or enjoying a warm cup of tea. These actions will all contribute to how you manage the task and lead to more a more enjoyable and productive experience.
Supporting our little ones
Sensory preferences are shaped through genetics and cumulative experiences. Understandably, our little ones have not yet developed the skills to organise and interpret their senses, so they often rely on adults to do this for them. Like adults, children have varying thresholds for each sense, which influence what they detect, avoid, tolerate or enjoy in daily activities – some more sensitive than others. Preferences may also alter depending on mood or bodily state, such as if we are feeling tired or hungry.
It makes sense to tune in
When we recognise how the environment can impact children’s senses, we can better regulate their responses and behaviours. Try to tune in to what sounds, sights, smells, tastes, touch and movements our children prefer or avoid. With greater awareness, we may start to notice what can trigger a big emotional response and how we can alter our environments to better support our children through these experiences. We may also notice experiences they seek out to create pleasure and support our children to access these, leading to increased enjoyment and participation.
Be curious to connect
Our sensory preferences may be similar or different to our children’s, so sometimes it can be challenging to understand each other’s cues and behaviours – but keep at it. It takes time to truly tune in and notice children’s likes and dislikes (and our own), however it can become a useful part of our toolbox. With time, we will be able to better understand our children’s behaviour and create more connection in our daily activities. Tuning in, noticing, and providing a supportive sensory environment for your child will have positive impacts on their development as well as your connection with each other.
If you feel curious about delving deeper into this, an occupational therapist will be able to offer further information and guidance.
Words: Molly Adamo
Molly is Paediatric Occupational Therapist and Director of Nurtured Paediatrics
Originally published in Connected Caregiving Winter 2022