The light may be blazing through the window, the alarm is ringing in your ear, you can feel how cold it is outside and all this sensory information is overwhelming for a moment. However, you have had many years of experience, you know what you need each morning to be able to adjust your level of arousal to the ‘just right state’ that allows you to function, concentrate and perform. Having a hot shower, drinking a cup of coffee, listening to the radio or going for a run are just some common sensory strategies that we have learnt to use to enable us to begin our day right.
Now consider what it would be like for your child, who may have an existing diagnosis, who is still very much developing physically, emotionally and mentally, coupled with the fact that they do not yet have their own sensory strategies to use when first waking up. Now that would be a challenge!
So, what are sensory needs?
The way we make sense of the world is via our senses. Sights, tastes, textures, sounds, smells and movements turn into information that our body requires to regulate, develop and learn. And in that order. If our sensory system is not processing sensory information efficiently and effectively, higher processing skills like learning, behaviour and skill attainment will not happen.
Our sensory system, to use an analogy, can be likened to a set of cups. Each cup represents one of the seven senses and the goal is to keep each of them at a just right level of fullness so the body stays regulated and calm.
Having too much stimulation in one sensory cup can cause it to overflow and therefore would create dysregulation. Further to this, once a single cup does overflow, it is highly possible that the others will become unbalanced and then the effect of this is a downward slope of distraction, negative feelings and behaviour.
The same then holds true for cups that have too little stimulation. If a child doesn’t receive enough sensory input, the cup will be under filled and may then cause a child’s focus to be diverted to filling that cup i.e. seeking input to establish a more balanced level.
Often over the course of a typical day at school or kindergarten, our children’s sensory cups can be flooded and or deprived which, as you can imagine, will create a chaotic and challenging day for them.
So how can we make the mornings, easier for our sensory children?
1. Make your Mornings Predictable
If your child is a sensory child, majority of the time they may feel overwhelmed and not in control. Therefore, it is important to give your child a greater sense of power so they feel less anxious about the day ahead.
- Create routines that your child can achieve, i.e. wake up, have breakfast, get dressed. You may like to try using a visual schedule to help support your morning routine.
- At night, talk about the events of the day ahead so that they know what to expect.
- Give your child options where possible (like what to have for breakfast, what colour toothbrush to use or what cup to drink from).
2. Remember Behaviour is a Form of Communication.
Next time your child is acting out, take a step back and try to understand what it is your child needs. For example, if your child is jumping around, then they are likely craving more opportunities for movement or if they are continuously clinging to your leg they may be seeking tactile stimulation. Understanding your child’s sensory preferences will enable you to use strategies to readjust their levels of arousal and prevent a tantrum from occurring.
3. Add Sensory Experiences to Existing Practices
You may not have an existing ridged routine but have tasks that you and your child attempt to complete each morning. Making these tasks more sensory focused and specific to your child’s preferences may provide your child with what they require to self-regulate.
Some examples of sensory routine experiences are:
- Eating crunchy cereal or drinking a cold smoothie through a straw
- Using a vibrating toothbrush
- Jumping on the trampoline
- Playing the piano
- Completing exercises or stretches
- Giving your child a big bear hug
- Having a warm bath or shower
- Listening to music while getting dressed
- Reading their favourite book/ colouring in a picture/watering the garden or going for a walk, as a reward or opportunity fully in their control if time allows.
4. Practice and Persistence
This will take practice, trial and error and you probably won’t achieve a smooth sailing morning each time. However, with good insight into your own and your child’s sensory preferences, you will be able to help enhance their ability to self-regulate their sensory demands throughout their day.
If you wish to meet with one of our occupational therapists to help you and your child with sensory regulation and create a sensory diet, please contact 5241 6462.
Alexandria Emmett is a compassionate, down to earth and driven occupational therapist who strives to achieve the best results for clients. Her love for working with children is motivated by her understanding of the important links between childhood participation in occupations and their physical and mental development. Alexandria consults Monday to Friday from our Belmont clinic.