When describing sensory processing disorder, we often throw around the words hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity. Let’s talk about these terms very generally:
- Hyposensitive: a small reaction to sensory input. “Not very sensitive.”
- Hypersensitive: a large reaction to sensory input. “Very sensitive.”
Kids can experience these on a spectrum and are all unique in how hyposensitve or hypersentive to sensory input they are. Most of us tend to be somewhere in the middle of the sensory spectrum, while kiddos who struggle in this area can be closer to one side of the spectrum or the other.
In this post, we’ll be exploring hyposensitivities to sensory input and answering questions such as these:
- what does it mean to have hyposensitivities to sensory input?
- what does hyposensitivity look like?
- what are some activities to help with hyposensitivities to sensory input?
What Does it Mean to Have Hyposensitivity to Sensory Input?
Whenever our bodies receive sensory input, our brains take it in, process it, and spit out a response. When we hear our name called, we turn our head in the direction of the sound; when we feel a tap on the shoulder, we turn behind us to see who’s there to greet us; when our hands are covered in dirt, we wash them before eating lunch.
When sensory processing disorder comes into play, our bodies can’t properly receive sensory input, process it, and spit out a relevant response.
If we’re on the hyposensitive end of the spectrum, we find ourselves not reacting enough to sensory input as is typical. We need more sensory information than is typical. When we hear our name called, we fail to turn our heads in the direction of the sound; when we feel a tap on the shoulder, we don’t notice that there’s someone there to greet us; when our hands are covered in dirt, we dive into lunch without realizing they need to be washed.
While the typical senses of smell, touch, sound, taste, and vestibular play a part in hyposensitivity, the often-forgotten sense is an important player here.
When we walk, jump, push, or pull, our muscles, joints, and tendons send sensory information up to the brain to tell it where the body is in space. If the brain does not receive enough of this information, it becomes hard to know where the body is in space and what it’s doing. This can lead to picking up a glass with too much force, having difficulty applying the right amount of pressure on a pencil when writing, or continually breaking objects when trying to put them down gently.
Basically, the brain isn’t receiving enough sensory input to understand where its body’s limbs are and what they need to be doing to appropriately interact with the world.
Super Short Summary: Sensory hyposensitivity happens when the body needs more sensory input than typical. While most of us can take a step, someone with hyposensitivity would need to jump in order to give their body the same amount of sensory information.
What Does Hyposensitivity Look Like?
Given that hyposensitivity is characterized by a lack of sensory information, children often either appear apathetic or hyperactive. That seems contradictory, so let’s dive into it.
Let’s say that I call your name and you don’t respond. I then see someone tap you on the shoulder and you still ignore the cue. While I may think that you’re ignoring those around you, it’s really that we didn’t call and tap loud enough to get your attention.
Kids with hyposensitivities to sensory input need more stimuli than is typical to become engaged in a situation. Granted, this is often if their attention is directed elsewhere and they need to be redirected to something new. Due to this need for higher degrees of sensory input, many kids with hyposensitivity are oblivious to small injuries. Safety is important, as these kids may crave movement, yet they won’t be able to use pain as an indicator of what’s too much.
These same kids that sometimes appear apathetic, also can appear hyperactive. When kids are hyposensitive, they often try to make up for the deficit by seeking out any sensory stimulation that they can.
And so we get sensory seeking.
Your child has likely been called a sensory seeker if they’re constantly crashing into pillows, swinging from bars, pushing around furniture, and crashing their toys into walls. While their bodies are hyposensitive, these kids are often seen as hyperactive. Even though this can be frustrating for parents, there’s a biological need for this movement. These kids need to move in order to know where their bodies are in space.
Again, this is where the proprioceptive system comes into play. If one small jump doesn’t give the brain enough sensory input about where the body is in space, then 3 or 4 large jumps may do the job. Here’s what you might see if your child is a hyposensitive sensory seeker:
- pushing too hard with a pencil when writing
- constantly diving into pillows and bedding
- crashing toys into walls and other objects
- picking objects up and putting them down with too much force
- making noises that seem purposeless
- accidentally hurts others by using too much force when playing
- loves spinning and is able to spin for long periods of time without getting dizzy
- rocks taps, or shakes while sitting
- loves jumping
- always craves movement of any kind
- likes vibration
- eats strongly flavored foods
This is only a small list of the behaviors you can see from sensory seekers. Your child’s Occupational Therapist will be able to do a full assessment to determine your child’s specific needs.
It’s important to know that this extra movement is a necessity for your child to feel regulated and in control of their bodies. Without this extra movement, their brains don’t have enough information to understand how to physically relate to the world around them. That’s why finding a healthy way for your child to satisfy their desire for movement is so important.
What are Some Activities to Help with Hyposensitivities to Sensory Input?
With hyposensitivity, we want to focus on providing the body with the sensory information that it’s lacking. This is where all of the crashing, swinging, pushing, and pulling comes into play. All of these things are examples of “heavy work.”
Heavy work activities involve anything that give extra input to the joints and muscles. If your child help you carry a bag of apples into the house, this gives the body more sensory input than if they had carried in a roll of toilet paper. If your child pulls a heavy box across the room, this gives the body more sensory input than pulling a toy car down the hall.
Staying within the appropriate limits given the age of your child, heavy work can be incorporated into almost any activity. Here are some ideas to get you started.