Sensory intelligence: your sensation-seeking or sensation-avoiding child
Is your child sensation seeking or sensation avoiding? Understanding your child's sensory needs will help you build a good environment for learning and developing.
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Twenty first century parenting is difficult. The demands and influences are escalating and we are continuously being judged by the norms of our society. It is sometimes very difficult for parents to step out or even think out of this mould. We however need to do exactly that in order to nurture our kids optimally without reducing discipline and boundaries. 

I believe when we understand our children’s stressors and needs on a sensory, emotional and cognitive level, we can prepare them for the life ahead.  

What is sensory intelligence?

Sensory intelligence is the insight and awareness of the primitive sensory wiring of our brains and the effect it has on everyday living. How we interpret and interact with the world is the product of sensory filtering through the senses. We see, hear, smell, taste, touch and move and respond accordingly. It is a primitive and unconscious process that occurs uniquely for all of us based on our genetic coding, and is influenced by how we were brought up.

What you see, hear, smell, touch, taste and how you move is not necessarily what your child, spouse or friend will hear, smell, touch, taste or how they will move. Due to their unique genetic sensory coding they might be sensitive to a particular sound that you don’t even notice. Our sensory tolerance levels occurs across all sensory systems and will determine what we are sensitive to and thus tend to avoid versus what information we are not registering well and thus seek out. 

The concept of sensory intelligence is based on the sensory integration theory developed in the 1960’s which was applied to children with developmental or learning difficulties. Yet every child’s senses are a gateway through which information from the outside world is processed and relayed to the brain and this in turn triggers the child’s response to its environment.

On a sensory level we as parents are responsible for the stimulation of our children for optimal growth and development. When we know our children’s sensory needs, we are better equipped to optimize their learning environment without under- or overstimulating them – both extremes may be detrimental to their development.

If we strive and work towards providing a balanced environment, we can raise children with a strong self-image and confidence – contributing to their becoming happy, positive, and successful individuals.

Some children may thrive in a busy and noisy environment, while others will do better in a quiet, tranquil environment. Some may need multiple sensory stimulation, while others have a low sensory threshold and may very well feel overwhelmed and become irritable with too much going on around them.

It is therefore very important for parents to be able to see and experience the world through their children’s individual eyes and unique senses. Sensory intelligence is having the ability to understand your children’s sensory needs and being able to make the necessary adjustments to their surroundings and interactions.

Sensory characteristics

Some of the characteristics of sensation seekers and sensation avoiders are resembled below. This is a guideline only.  How children react to their sensory profiles will be dependent on their home, school, culture and physical environment. Parents should be vigilant and notice the sensory properties of activities and environment to determine for what the child is either sensitive or seeking out.

Characteristics of sensation-seeking children

  • Active, fidgety, on-the-go, excitable, loud, noisy
  • Continuously engaging, hyperactive, impulsive
  • Take excessive risks, poor regards to safety
  • Constantly moving, touching, biting/mouthing objects
  • Chew on pencils, toys, clothes
  • Bump, crash, tackle – enjoy hard physical contact
  • Move and explore continuously
  • Creative, energetic
  • Need more supervision, safety awareness and strict boundaries

When the above symptoms (together with other indicators) present excessively and impact on the child’s learning and development, it is described as SPD (sensory processing disorder). These children are often diagnosed as ADHD (attention deficit disorder). Research do show strong similarities between sensory processing disorder and SPD and then require specialised intervention. 

Characteristics of sensation-avoiding children

  • Emotionally reactive, sensitive, can be anxious
  • Resistant to change, reliant on structure and rigid rituals
  • Hyper vigilant: always scan environment and very intuitive and detail orientated
  • Withdraw from stimuli and/or people
  • Only tolerate limited clothing and/or foods
  • Refuse messy activities
  • Withdraw from touch/cuddles
  • Can be aggressive and demanding

When the above symptoms (together with other indicators) present excessively and impact on the child’s learning and development, it is also described as SPD (sensory processing disorder), and in this format sensory defensiveness. Defensiveness can occur in only one system (i.e. touch, auditory) but also in various other sensory systems.

Sensation-avoiding children have a tendency to experience stress and sensory overload regularly. 

However, all children, ranging between low to high thresholds, all go through stages of experiencing sensory overload. Sensory overload is often the precursor to stress, anxiety, negative behavior, poor concentration and scholastic difficulties. We tend to live in overloaded and over stimulating worlds and parents should acquire a “less is more” approach rather than “more is more”. 

Some sensory intelligent tips:

  • Quiet time and spaces are crucial for our children. They need more time out to recharge their batteries. 
  • Creating a “womb” space in their bedrooms is a very good strategy. They can use these spaces independently when they are feeling overloaded. It is however very important to stress it as a time-out strategy and not a time-out discipline imposed by the parent! This prepares them for the next activity.
  • Planning and preparation are crucial. When children are prepared in advance they can create internal dialogue for themselves to prepare and get ready. Limit spur-of-the-moment outings and surprises as they prefer predictability and structure. They want to know what, where and how things going to happen. 
  • Tactile-sensitive children are fussy when it comes to clothing textures. It really does create immense discomfort and sometimes even pain for them. It distracts them continuously and kind of “takes over” the brain so that they get irritated very quickly. Be considerate to their needs when you buy new clothing; choose textures wisely with them present. Do encourage new clothing items, but don’t force it upon them. It is just not worth it! Also washing garments a few times before wearing helps. 
  • Big gatherings like birthday parties, crowds or concerts are often sensory overstimulating. Their systems just cannot tune out all the background sensory information and they get overloaded and experience stress and discomfort.
  • With movement sensitivity, often car sickness can present itself. Let the child chew on biltong, an apple, carrot or gum as it can be self-regulatory and reduce car sickness. Movement sensitivity will also impact his choice of sport. Movement like running or biking will be more tolerable than gymnastics. Increased head movements and upside-down movements such as in gymnastics overload the movement system quickly. 
  • Bright lights and people moving around as often seen in shopping malls can overload the visual system. Shopping malls can be noisy, contributing to auditory overload. Being touched and bumped by people flares up the sensory nervous system that is sensitive for touch. 

Calming sensory input

Sensory inputs that are calming are: deep, firm, touch pressure; slow, rhythmic movement, heavy work against resistance; soft, gentle colors and lighting; warm, smooth and sweet tastes and lavender and chamomile smells.

When your child is in overload, use them. These strategies are particularly relevant to sensation-avoiding children.

Alerting sensory input

Sensory input that are alerting are: light touch; loud, intense rock music; bright lights, colours and clutter; fast, irregular movement; cold, sour, spicy and minty tastes and mint and citrus smells. Use them when your child needs stimulation and “waking” up. These strategies are particularly relevant to sensation-seeking children.

When the system reaches shutdown it always is an unproductive state but often necessary in order to recharge. It’s like having a power failure; your systems switch off due to shortage/overload somewhere. Sleep at night is our system’s in-build power recharge system and very necessary. Our children (especially the roots) need to sleep well at night. 

Knowing and anticipating our needs as well as our children’s needs reduce overload and conflict. It also is often in contrast to our own needs.  Selecting activities based on their potential to either overload or stimulate our children are crucial and imperative for positive parenting.

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