Understanding Our 8 Senses | What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

by | Apr 17, 2019 | Occupational Therapy

Today our COTA Jill helps us to understand our 8 senses, what they are, symptoms you might see in your child and activities to help provide input your child might be seeking.

Auditory system

This includes hearing, listening, interpreting, localizing sounds, and being able to filter and selectively attend to auditory stimuli.

Some symptoms of sensitivities include:

  • Sensitive to loud, sudden soundsears
  • Distracted by background noises
  • Does not speak as well as others their age
  • Has a significant history of ear infections
  • Covers their ears often to block sound Asks others to repeat what they said
  • Has trouble with phonics and learning to read
  • Unusually high volume or low volume in their voice
  • Often seems to ignore parents or teachers

Some activity ideas include:

  • Use headphones or ear plugs to block out background noises
  • Simplify language when giving instructions to your child or in the classroom
  • Give a verbal or visual warning before loud sounds (like fire drills) to cover ears.
  • Try Therapeutic Listening programs (usually this involves specialized training and an Occupational Therapist to assess)
  • Include a rain stick in your sensory space or room
  • Musical instruments such as shakers or learning to play an instrument
  • Calming, soft music to encourage regulation and self-calming
  • Use a white noise machine, fan, etc.
  • Play clapping games

Visual system

The visual system includes using our eyes to see what is far or close to us. A typical person is able to use smooth and precise eye movements to scan and visually assess their environment.

Difficulties with the visual system can prevent a child from focusing and completing tasks. Visual sensitivities can affect acuity, ocular motor, visual motor, and visual perception.

Symptoms of sensitivities include:

  • Sensitive to sunlight or fluorescent lights
  • Overly distracted by classroom or home wall decorations
  • Poor hand-eye coordination
  • Difficulty tracking across a page while reading
  • Difficulty copying from chalkboard

Here are some activity ideas to work on these sensitivities:

  • Decrease wall decorations
  • Adjust lighting in classroom or home (cover fluorescent lights or turn them off and use natural light or lamps).
  • Use a table easel to bring working surface in a more upright position
  • Use a window guide and/or colored overlays for reading
  • Copy from page or book at close range instead of a chalkboard
  • Make sure screen and monitors at a proper height
  • Focus on eye-hand coordination activities such as playing catch

Gustatory system

More by the word taste or oral sensory system. Taste and smell or the olfactory system are very closely related.

If your child has taste sensitivities you notice some of the following symptoms:

  • Sensitive to brushing teeth (hypersensitive)
  • Sensitive to food textures (hypersensitive)
  • Mouthing non-food objects and exploring textures such as chewing on pencils, clothing etc. – this is age appropriate for young babies and toddlers.
  • Frequent drooling
  • Loves or has a strong fear of going to the dentist

Some activity ideas to help with these sensitivities include:

  • Chewing gum
  • Chewable jewelry or chewable tool/toy
  • Vibrating toothbrush
  • Drinking from a straw (sucking can be focusing and help with attention, especially thicker items like a smoothie or milkshake)
  • Creating tasting bottles of various safe items with scent or flavors (sweet, salty, sour etc)
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Exploring textures through sensory bins or messy sensory play
  • Blowing out candles
  • Drinking through a sports bottle


  • avoids messy hands, face, or just mess in general
  • unaware if hands or face are messy
  • has difficulty with certain clothing items such as tags. May avoid getting dressed or only wear certain types of clothing
  • needs to touch everything (brushing along walls while walking, picking up everything).
  • seeks out physical contact and touch
  • avoids hugs or physical contact with others
  • the need to fidget in order to focus or when bored
  • highly sensitive to temperature changes or may avoid or crave certain temperatures (hot or cold)
  • highly sensitive to small cuts or scrapes (low or high pain tolerance).
  • avoids self-care tasks such as brushing teeth, brushing hair, getting a haircut, or having nails trimmed

And here are some activity ideas to help with tactile sensitivities:

  • sensory bins with various textures
  • use weighted blankets or lap pads
  • play dough or finger painting
  • deep pressure either by rolling an exercise ball across the back or squeezing the hands
  • using a stress ball for hand squeezes or hand fidgets
  • put finger paint in a plastic bag and have them paint from outside the bag by moving the paint around in the bag with their fingers
  • use tag-less clothing
  • massage their scalp before haircuts (deep pressure scalp massage)
  • weighted vest at dentist or other anxiety inducing outings that include tactile input
  • shaving cream finger paint (write their names, copy shapes or letters/numbers)

Olfactory System

Our sense of smell. If you have a child with olfactory sensitivity, you may notice the following:

  • Overly sensitive to certain smells and avoids them
  • Limited diet (gagging or avoiding)
  • Explores objects by smelling
  • Craves certain smells or textures
  • Holds their nose to avoid smells, even if you don’t smell anything
  • Avoids foods most children their age enjoy

Here are some activity ideas to help with olfactory sensitivities:

  • Scented play dough, finger paints, or sensory doughs
  • Use scented markers or stickers
  • Create smelling bottles with various spices or items to introduce new smells
  • Use scented bubbles
  • Scented chewable items
  • Avoid scented soaps, lotions, perfumes and oils
  • Visit an herb garden

Proprioceptive System

Perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body. Symptoms of proprioceptive needs include:

  • Poor body awareness – knowing where their body or body parts are in space
  • Poor coordination – they move awkwardly or stiffly
  • Difficulty grading amount of pressure – using excessive force on an object (such as breaking a -pencil or crayon when writing or coloring or not enough pressure)
  • May push, hit, bite, or bang into other children
  • Avoid or crave jumping, crashing, pushing, pulling, bouncing or hanging
  • Chew on clothing or objects more than other children
  • Have to look at what they are doing (staring at their feet while walking or running)

Activities to help improve proprioception input can include:

  • Weighted lap pads or vests
  • Bean bag chair to sit in
  • Heavy work activities
  • Swimming
  • Karate
  • Climbing
  • Playing in a sandbox
  • Carry groceries
  • Wearing lycra
  • Chair push-ups
  • Dancing
  • Washing the car
  • Rolling a ball
  • Yoga Stretches
  • Pillow fights
  • Chewing bubble gum
  • Using the monkey bars at the playground

Interoception System

Interoception is the sense of knowing what is going on INSIDE our bodies.

Things such as feeling:

  • Hunger
  • Thirst
  • Tired
  • Feeling pain
  • Temperature (Feeling hot or cold etc)
  • Using the bathroom
  • Any other internal sensations

So what are some “signs” that a child may be struggling with interoception input?

  • Difficulty with toileting (bed wetting and accidents).
  • Unable to track hydration or food intake (never feel thirsty or hungry. Or may always feel thirsty or hungry).
  • Difficulty in recognizing and communicating internal body states or sensations (feeling hot/cold, pain etc).
  • Difficulty regulating emotions and feelings (not feeling they are angry before they verbally or physically lash out).
  • Distracted by internal sensory input such as hearing their heartbeat.
  • Unable to tell how loud their voice is in an environment. May use sound to cover up unwanted sensory stimuli.

There is not a lot of research yet, but here are some suggested activities to help:

  • Mindfulness activities
  • Yoga
  • Heavy work activities
  • Alerting activities
  • Repetitive and rhythmic vestibular input
  • Visual prompts and cues to identify and communicate emotions
  • Social stories

Jill Campbell COTA/L