The myth of the sensory kid

child's drawing answering "what do you like to do?" with answer "flipan ovr the sofu" and drawing of child with two braids flying through the air

Sick of the stereotypes around sensory needs?  Yes, our kids have benefited dramatically from skilled occupational therapy. But we talk about “sensory kids” as if everyone else doesn’t have sensory needs. If hating having tags in your shirt really is a clear sign of a disorder then why do many major manufacturers produce and advertise “tagless” shirts? 

The reality is that every person and animal has sensory needs.  Have you ever watched a cat soaking up the heat in a beam of sunshine? A dog vigorously gnawing on a toy? Animals don’t have any inhibitions about meeting sensory needs.  Humans seem to have decided that, as a whole, we need to pretend that our senses and their needs don’t exist.  But that just isn’t so!

The information in this post is not meant to take the place of skilled occupational therapy.  In fact, Robin found that helping her patients create a sensory menu often helped them realize the benefits of OT for their kids.  Unfortunately, most insurance companies do not cover OT for adults and many children do not have access.  We’re hoping this article will help people who do not have access and encourage those who do to try it out.

In this article we’ll discuss

How Many Senses You Actually Have

So if every human has sensory needs and we’ve also been taught to suppress them or ignore them, how do we get in touch with our sensory needs?

First, let’s clear up how many senses you have.  Five, right?  I mean, there are so many kids picture books call THE FIVE SENSES, you learn it in school.  

WRONG!

There are actually 8 senses:

  1. Visual (sight)
  2. Auditory (hearing)
  3. Olfactory (smell)
  4. Gustatory (taste)
  5. Tactile (touch)
  6. Vestibular (sense of head moving in space, for instance spinning or nodding)
  7. Proprioceptive (sense of where you physically are in space, for instance this is what allows you to close your eyes and touch your nose)
  8. Interoception (sense of what’s happening inside your body such as hunger, thirst, a need to urinate, pain, etc)

We can all have strengths and weaknesses in any of these areas.  For instance, Robin has terrible allergies and therefore a terrible sense of smell.  She also had a pastor as a child who was in a bad bike accident and had a head injury that cut nerves from his nose so that he couldn’t smell anymore.  Tim has trouble recognizing pain so it’s often Robin who realizes that he has a migraine before he does and then he realizes that’s why he’s been so unhappy, the unrelenting pain in his head.

We also all have positive or negative experiences in these areas. Lying on warm sand may be heavenly for one person and gritty for another.  Difficulty finding sheets that feel right to both members of a couple is more common than you realize. Just right for Tim is not fuzzy enough for Robin. 

What is a Sensory Diet?

A “diet” is just the particular kinds of foods that a person or group of people eat. So there’s a vegetarian diet, paleo diet, Mediterranean diet, and so forth.  Each of those diets includes certain foods and not other foods.

A sensory diet is a particular mix of sensory experiences that are beneficial for a particular person.  Typically this is created by an occupational therapist to help a child with sensory issues.  The goal of a sensory diet is to keep a child sufficiently alert, focused, and calm to function at an optimal level.

Wouldn’t it make sense for everyone to have the right mix of sensory experiences to remain alert, focused, calm, and functioning at an optimal level?  A good mix of sensory experiences will raise your stress tolerance and make everything else a little easier.  Imagine you have 100 points to spend on frustration every day.  Do you want to waste a point on irritating socks or an unpleasant food texture?  Why not earn a few points back by smelling a favorite scent or lying under a weighted blanket?

We do not recommend that our suggestions take the place of a skilled occupational therapist, but we recognize that the vast majority of adults and a large number of children do not have access to OT.  This can also be used to help you organize your OT’s recommendations.

A Sensory Menu

It can be helpful to create a sensory menu.  You can do it on a blank piece of paper, a whiteboard, or on your electronic device.  You can also put in your information in the sign up box at the bottom of this page and receive a printable version our family uses. A sensory menu is an list of sensory experiences organized in a useful way.  Ours is organized by 7 of the 8 senses (we’re leaving off interoception because it’s a little trickier than the others–but feel free to add it to yours!)

It’s worthwhile to create a separate sensory menu for each member of the family because everyone’s needs are different.  Even if you are an adult or are neurotypical, you still deserve to have a sensory diet and this sensory menu can help you to take the time to think about what would help you be your best.  It can be posted on your refrigerator or used when planning your calendar or laying out your space.  

It’s best to incorporate sensory experiences into your daily routines so you don’t have to put any effort into them.  It’s just as easy to buy sheets that meet a sensory need as sheets that don’t.  If you’re going to be waiting on hold anyway, you may as well have a taste, touch, or visual sensory item waiting where you normally do your calls.  With a little thought, you can sprinkle sensory experiences throughout the day of each member of your household.  

Positive sensory experiences are not a cure-all but if you can easily make things even 10% easier, then why not?  We’ve found that dealing with sensory issues makes our other efforts much more effective.  

A Note About Finances and Sensory Stuff 

There are a lot of people making a lot of money off of desperate people and parents looking for help. A lot of sensory-friendly items are expensive and we totally understand if you can’t afford them right now.  After Robin’s strokes, we were only able to afford to get things with our tax return or with gift cards.  If someone sent a gift card for a kid’s birthday, we’d confiscate it and use it to buy things they needed rather than cheap toys that would wear out. Remember that most sensory items are cheap or free! 

Most of the experiences for a sensory menu do not require “stuff”–ideas like jumping jacks or deep breathing.  Other items are about making discerning choices.  It’s harder to find just the right shirt at the thrift store (we know!) but can be worth it. Sometimes you can use some creativity.  For example, we got a free mattress off Craigslist and covered it in a mattress bag from the dollar store and shoved it into a closet so that it curved up and put a sheet on it and that became our son’s quiet room when he needed a sensory break.  

We made homemade playdough, sensory sand (with supplies from the dollar store), and fingerpaint. We bought shaving cream and bubbles at the dollar store.  

A Few of the Hard-to-Find Items on Our Family’s Sensory Menus

Once Robin was able to work more hours, we were able to start investing in more expensive items one at a time.  Since these are outside most people’s usual realm, we wanted to share a few that have been especially helpful for our family. 

A quick note, these are affiliate links.  We didn’t write the article in order to put in affiliate links.  In actual fact, we wrote the article with the links and then realized it was silly not to become an affiliate.  These are all items we’ve bought with our own money and use with our family.  If you click on one of these links and buy something, we may get a tiny cut of what you spend but you won’t pay anything extra.  

Baoding balls: Technically the baoding balls belong to Robin but we all enjoy using them.  They are heavy for their size, cool to the touch, and make a pleasantly quiet and distant chiming sound when you roll them around.  Everyone but our daughter can roll both of them in one hand and she just uses both hands.  We keep them in the sensory basket in the living room now that the kids are old enough to not throw them but they have survived a surprising number of crashes on the floor.  We did not get these until after our son had outgrown his throwing stage or we’re sure he would have broken a window.  If you need something more portable for when you’re out of the house, you can buy necklaces with similar chimes in them.  If you prefer something that won’t roll away, there are also rattles with lovely chimes inside

Fidget Cube: Robin is also the owner of a fidget cube that everyone else borrows.  It makes a satisfying click (Robin’s favorite, she enjoys quiet sounds) but also has quiet sides to mess with in meetings–just remember not to put it in your pocket because people will wonder what in the world you’re doing!

Weighted blanket: We like this weighted blanket because it comes in a lot of different weights and colors.  It’s important to match the correct weight to the correct person so having different colors for different weights helps us not mix them up.  We let the kids use blankets that are technically too heavy for them but only with supervision.  Our son drags his weighted blanket all over the house and likes to drape it over his head and shoulders while doing difficult subjects like math.  Out of sheer desperation we allow our daughter to fall asleep under one that’s twice as heavy as she is supposed to use but we sit with her while she falls asleep and then remove it.  The theoretical risk is respiratory distress.  Even though we don’t know of any breathing problems in someone old enough, strong enough, and cognizant enough to get out from underneath the blanket, it’s not worth taking a risk. 

Body sock: Our son is a big fan of his body sock.  He likes the resistance of pushing against it but he also will stand inside with it pushing down on his head while he does the dishes or reads a book. 

Essential oils: With Robin being a physician, we do not use essential oils medicinally, but we each have our preferred scents for helping us calm down or become more alert.  We bought plastic bottles and put a cotton ball in each one and then soaked each cotton ball with a different essential oil.  Our daughter in particular enjoys the mystery of having them unlabelled but you could also label them.  She will sniff one while she’s falling asleep or bring a few along with us when we go somewhere.  

Earplugs: All of us get overwhelmed by loud sounds.  The first time we wore ear plugs was before we had children and Robin won a classroom lottery at med school to go to a hockey game with one of the professors and bring a friend (she chose Tim–we were married so it seemed like the right thing to do!)  He said to wear ear plugs and we were so glad we did!  Even with the ear protection, it was a wall of sound.  We use just the basic cheap earplugs you can get anywhere.  But we also have fancier ones for special situations.  We found these earplugs at the recommendation of another dance mom when our son couldn’t cope with the loud music certain teachers played.  They stay in while dancing and are discrete enough to not be noticed by most people.  The sound isn’t distorted so they can be worn at concerts and not mess up the experience.  Every pair comes with multiple sizes so they work from little ones up to large adults.  Just don’t give them to kids who will eat them!  They do come with a handy little case for storing them so they don’t accidentally get lost in your pocket lint or go through the laundry. 

Chew toys and pen protectors: Until about 1st grade, our son would chew his fingers until they bled unless he had exactly the right chew toy.  It had to be approximately finger sized and shaped.  For awhile, he would only chew on ones shaped in a tube but then spit would be dripping out in his lap or on the table in front of him while he worked.  Ewwwww!  Then we found these.  They are even better than a tube because they are kind of hard in the middle like a finger and a little squishy on the outside (our son’s words as a connoisseur of finger chewing).  They hold up well over time so are well worth the extra expense if you have a vigorous chewer.  He now feels he’s outgrown chewing but once in awhile we find a chewed up pen. A lot of adults and teens chew on pens and pencils while thinking and to protect their teeth (and prevent ink spills–we’ve had it happen!) you can get special chewable covers.  

Spinning things: Everyone but Robin loves spinning things and watching thing spin.  Left to their own devices, Tim and the kids will spin anything just to see if they can.  Besides buying a 25 pack of fidget spinners (cheaper in bulk and surprisingly fun to have multiple going at once), we buy packs of other tops and spinning things.  Santa brings spinning things.  The Easter bunny brings spinning things.  We have an entire bin in the kids’ closet just for spinning things that aren’t scattered around the house.  A favorite are the tops that flip over if you get it just right and it spins on its stick.  

When and How to Use Your Sensory Menu

The goal is not to have this piece of paper you shove in a pile of papers and forget about.  So how do you really use this in your life?

In Your Daily Routines 

If you know what sensory experiences are best for you, it’s straightforward to include them in your daily routines. When looking at your schedule, how can you include ideas from your sensory menu?  When you are buying groceries or household items, choose the more sensory friendly option if you can afford it.

On Bad Days

If you’re having a bad day, instead of using generic calming techniques, try using ones that are specific to you from your sensory menu (same goes for your kids).

On Vacation

For a lot of neurodiverse families, a change from routine can be stressful.  Keeping your sensory experiences from your usual routine can be helpful.

How else do you use a sensory menu? Tell us in the comments!

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