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Finding the Right Sensory Supports

“What sensory strategies should I use??”

This is a very common question I get from both therapists and parents.

Because sometimes kids seem to know what input they want, but then they go and go and go and end up dysregulated.

When it comes to sensory supports, there is a difference between what a child needs, and what they want.

I once worked with a family whose child loved to spin. And usually the mom would stop the kid from spinning because she was afraid he was getting too dizzy. But one day, Mom decided to just let him spin as much as he wanted… And he ended up throwing up the rest of the day.

Kids can have a really hard time judging when they have had enough.

This is why it’s so important for us to know what inputs they need of a certain type of input.

So here are 3 steps you can use to help a child not only get what they want, but also what they need.

Step 1: Identify their sensory threshold

You need to know if the child has a small threshold or a large threshold.

A small threshold means they only need a little bit of sensory input to register it. Picture a small cup that needs to be filled. A large threshold means they need a lot of sensory input to register that input. They have a large cup that needs to be filled.

You can download my favorite visual for understanding sensory thresholds here:

You cannot know how much input a child needs or how much you should be giving if you don’t know their sensory threshold.

Step 2: Meet their threshold

For children with a low threshold, their cup will be filled much faster. So you will want to use a lot of smaller, less intense inputs throughout the day.

For children with a high threshold, you’ll want to use big, more intense inputs to fill their cup. When you see a child constantly searching and seeking for input, that’s likely because their cup has not been filled and they are not getting the stimulation they need.

Step 3: Bring them into their optimal learning zone

The optimal learning zone is the place where the brain and the body are regulated, engaged, and reading for learning.

This is where you give kids what they need, not what they want.

For some kids they may need more alerting input. Some examples are jumping up and down, singing loudly with big movements, tickles, etc. These inputs are going to bring their energy levels up.

For others they need more calming input. This would look like using a softer voice, swinging back and forth very slowly and rhythmically, etc. This type of input is going to bring their energy levels down.

What we see a lot of times with kids who have big thresholds is the tendency to keep providing big, exciting input because that is what they like. But too much of that big input can actually cause them to become dysregulated.

Once the child has met their sensory threshold, we should switch to providing more calming input to keep them in their optimal learning zone.

Check out this week’s episode of Making the Shift for more examples of how to provide the right combination of sensory supports.

If you are an SLP interested in learning more about how to use sensory strategies in your speech session, click here to learn more about the Inside Out Sensory Certificate Course for SLPs. If you are a parent of an autistic child or child with sensory needs, click here to learn about the Inside Out Sensory Communication Program for Parents.

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