Some children seem to struggle to get enough from their bodies and the world around them to be able to stay calm and alert. These children may appear tired or ‘zoned-out’, or they might not register someone calling their name, even if they are in the same room. They appear under-responsive or under-aroused.
Alternatively, some children may appear to be on ‘high alert’ and their senses may be super-sensitive. For example, noises might hurt their ears, clothes might seem scratchy, or touch from other people may be distressing. These children appear over-responsive or over-aroused. Our senses are especially sensitive when we are stressed or anxious, but heightened sensations can make the child feel even more stressed-out, and it can become a vicious cycle. Children may end up feeling totally overwhelmed. Their body may even respond to this by going into ‘shut-down mode’.
Most commonly, children will be a complex mixture of these things. Some senses may seem over-responsive and some may seem under-responsive. Sensory needs might change throughout the day, or from one day to the next, depending on factors such as what the activity is, who the child is with, what the environment is like or even just what mood a child is in.
Children might respond to their sensory state by seeking sensations to try and help them to become more regulated. For example, if under-stimulated, they may feel the need to move more and may struggle to sit still, or may have the urge to make funny or loud noises. If feeling over-whelmed, they might be seeking sensations that have a calming and regulating effect; for example, chewing things or seeking out deep pressure touch, such as a bear hug.