University of Edinburgh

Sensory Play and Learning

Presented on Friday, 11 March 2011

Sensory Stimulation

Judy Denziloe

We are all surrounded by sensory stimuli all the time:

  • the clothes we are wearing
  • the textures in our environment
  • things we see
  • things we hear
  • smells, tastes
  • and so on ...

We receive 80% of the informtation about the world around us through the visual channel and we put this together with information from our other senses to understand what is happening to us and around us. Many disabled childre may need help to learn how to use each sense to its maximum potential and have problems making sense of the sensory messages they are receiving. This is especially true if the child has a visual or hearing impairment - many childre with physical or learning disabilities have an additional sensory impairment which may not have been identified.

Many disabled children lack sensory experiences because they are unable to move around and find them.

As our senses develop, we also learn to filter out sensory messages that are not important to us (a door banging in the distance, the hum of a machine). Some disabled children may find it difficult to filter out sensations and concentrated on what is most important. For example, if I ask an autistic child to do something, my voice may be of no importance for them than the quiet ticking of the clock or the sound of the rain on the window.

When introducing sensory stimulation, there are some important points to remember:

Don't bombard the child with lots of sensory stimuli at once.

  • introduce one stimulus at a time, so that you can observe the response
  • find the preferred sense (vision? hearing? touch?)
  • identify likes and dislikes (soft textures? harsh textures?)
  • what type of stimulus (eg; lights - what colour? moving or still?)

Be sensitive and observant - is the chld enjoying the sensations or becoming distrassed, bored or withdrawn?

  • sensations are very individual - some people love the feel of velvet, others hate it
  • sensory stimulation should be slightly challenging; move us a little outside our comfort zone; encourage us to tolerate new experiences - it should note be torture!
  • allow the child plenty of time to experience the stimulus (unless they are showing signs of distress). Children with profound disabilities and complex needs have to work out many things:
    • where am I?
    • am I comfortable?
    • do I know this person?
    • do I like what they are doing with and to me?
    • how can I organise my muscles to show that I like/dislike it? (smile/frown, reach for/pull away from)
  • don't bombard the child with a running commentary; they need to concentrate on what they are doing and experienceing - don't distract them!

Remember that some children will be hypersensitive to some sensory stimuli.

  • this is particularly true of autistic children, who may tolerate some noises but be very upset by other, not necessarily louder, sound - or may react adversely if you change your perfume or aftershave.
  • other autistic children may be hyposensitive and crave spicy foods and strong (often unpleasant) smells.

If a child has strong likes or dislikes, it is a good idea to develop a 'passport' for that child showing these, so that other carers know what to try and what to avoid. It is also important to record individual children's responses to sensory stimulation so that you can measure progress and plan the next steps. For instance:

  • looks at torch light shining on the projection brolly
  • points to light
  • follows moving light with eyes
  • follows moving light by moving own torch.