Kris’ Corner – Meeting Sensory Needs

September 22, 2022

As you may (or may not if this world of foster care is new to you): many children from hard places have sensory needs above…and possibly beyond…those of the general public.

Now, I have to admit…once I began looking into my child’s sensory needs, I realized that I had some of my own sensory needs, which I had never before acknowledged. And to be fair: it wasn’t that I was trying to hide or deny them…I had no idea it was a thing! I have a zero as my ACES score, so I know that’s not it, but sometimes people simply have sensory issues due to anxiety, depression, etc. But I will say this: I have never slept as well as I have since I began using a weighted blanket every.single.night!

But this post is about kids with trauma, and not about me. So here’s the thing…there are seven different types of sensory needs a child may have when they come into your home. Who even knew that? I definitely did not when I began my foster care journey…and honestly it is still sometimes difficult to always keep in mind when my child is struggling.

So in an effort to help you (and me), here are the seven sensory needs to be on the lookout for:

  1. Proprioceptive
  2. Vestibular
  3. Visual
  4. Olfactory
  5. Tactile
  6. Auditory
  7. Oral

So now that I’ve listed them, I need to do some explaining for you: how can each of these needs present themselves and how can we help our kids who are struggling with these needs? (To be totally clear…this is not an all-encompassing list of presentations or solutions; it’s just something to get everyone considering what *may* be going on with a child.)

Proprioceptive Needs:

  • Balance issues (trouble standing on one foot or frequent falls while walking or sitting)
  • Uncoordinated movement (not being able to walk in a straight line)
  • Clumsiness (dropping or bumping into things)
  • Poor posture control (slouching or having to place extra weight on a table for balance while sitting)
  • Trouble recognizing your own strength (pressing on a pen too hard when writing or not being able to gauge the force needed to pick something up)
  • Avoiding certain movements or activities (climbing stairs or walking on uneven surfaces because of a fear of falling
  • Loves a tight hug or firm touch
  • Grasps objects too tightly
  • Craves deep pressure and vibration
  • May appear clumsy
  • Fears uneven surfaces or stairs/escalators
  • Prefers jumping or skipping to just walking
  • Has floppy/low muscle tone

Proprioceptive Solutions:

Vestibular Needs:

Hyperresponsive Behaviors

  • Gets car sick/motion sickness
  • Doesn’t like movement (swings, slides, roller coasters)
  • Avoids having head be upside down/tipped backwards (hair washing or getting diaper changed)
  • Appear to be clumsy or unsteady

Hyporesponsive Behaviors

  • Always spinning, running, moving, or fidgeting
  • Can spin and spin and spin and doesn’t get dizzy
  • Engages in risky behavior
  • May be impulsive
  • Has floppy or low muscle tone
  • Craves movement that is fast or intense
  • Enjoys being upside down

Vestibular Solutions:

Visual Needs:

  • Seeks out bright or busy environments
  • Prefer toys with bright, reflective, or shiny surfaces
  • Distracted by objects with spinning, flashing, or moving lights
  • Insists on clothing and toys with specific shapes, colors, and patterns
  • Craves screen time and prefers stimulating movies and games
  • Avoids bright lights
  • Shifts gaze to avoid eye contact

Visual Solutions:

  • Wear sunglasses, even indoors
  • Use a mirroror weighted animal companion to practice eye contact
  • Make sure wall decorations are soothing and not over stimulating
  • Play with flashlights and other visually stimulating toys
  • Encourage a healthy amount of screen time
  • Sleep with a nightlight or calming alternative, such as a lava lamp
  • Provide a variety of colors and patterns in toys, décor, and clothing
  • Use visual aids while studying to help reinforce key concepts
  • Schedule time throughout the day to watch videos or play with stimulating toys.

Olfactory Needs:

  • Super sensitive (either over- or under-responsive) to various smells


  • Strong reactions to smells that may be unnoticed by peers (such as refusal to try certain foods or be in the same room as others eating them)
  • Avoids certain scented materials or objects that contain cologne, perfume, etc.


  • Does not seem to notice unpleasant odors or drastic changes in smells within their environment
  • Strong need to smell objects (such as soaps, markers, clothing, gasoline, other strong odors)

Olfactory Solutions:

  • Use more natural deodorizers like essential oils
  • Use an electric air deodorizer for the room
  • Acknowledge the hypersensitivities and identify an appropriate response with them (such as leaving the room temporarily, moving away, reminding that the smell will not harm them)
  • Practice desensitization to smells in small gradual increments
  • Discuss scents throughout the day
  • Put labels on different items and discuss emotions or any memories tied to them (such as baking, laundry, flowers, crafts)
  • Create and play games with your child or discover activities that incorporate items that contain scents (such as cotton balls with essential oils, scented candles, scratch and sniff snickers, scented crayons or markers, food/drink, playdoh, and lotions)
  • Note that different smells can be calming (lavender) and some can also be alerting (peppermint)

Tactile Needs:

  • Avoids clothing in general, especially that with tags
  • Touches things that are smooth or soothing
  • Touch everything (such as brushing along walls while walking, picking up everything)
  • Avoids being barefoot or walking on grass, sand, carpet
  • Avoids seams and wears socks inside out
  • Cleans hands a lot
  • Does not like showers or getting wet
  • Does not like being touched; avoids hugs and physical contact with others
  • Avoids certain textures or textured material
  • Avoids messy hands, face, or just mess in general
  • Unaware of pain or if hands or face are messy
  • Craves being close to people or need to be touching something constantly
  • Unaware of dangerous items that may cause pain or injury
  • May be unaware if something hurts (high pain threshold)

Tactile Solutions:

Auditory Needs:

  • Easily startled by fireworks, loud noises or crashing sounds
  • Turns volume up on music or TV
  • Always tapping feet or hands, or likes drumming
  • Overreacts to sounds
  • Avoid noisy places or activities

Auditory Solutions:

  • Provide noise-cancelling earmuffs/headphones
  • Encourage drum or percussion lessons
  • Give extra time between instructions and also more time before you repeat instructions to avoid auditory overload
  • Completingheavy work activities with the child prior to going into noisy environments

Oral Needs:

  • Bites others
  • Chews on sleeves, non-food objects, fingers, etc.
  • Picky eater
  • Craves spicy, salty, or sour flavors
  • Does not like textured food
  • Does not like brushing teeth or having teeth cleaned

Oral Solutions:

  • Provide crunchy snacks such as apples, carrots or celery
  • Provide a favorite chewyto have on hand
  • Provide chewing gum
  • Encourage use of electric toothbrush or oral vibration device

As I mentioned above, this is in no way an all-inclusive list. If your child is displaying behaviors on this list, or behaviors which are NOT on this list and you believe they may be sensory related, an Occupational Therapist specializing in sensory integration can make an assessment and put together a course of therapy specific to your child and her needs.