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What's the Big Deal with Sensory?

Sensory processing and trauma/adverse childhood experiences are one of my top interests to research and discuss! Let’s break down the relationship between these two concepts. Sensory processing is something we do from minute to minute of each and everyday without even noticing. Right now I am sitting in a coffee shop taking in the loud sounds of baristas making drinks, adapting to the colder temperature inside of the building and the harder surface of the seats, and attending to the feeling of hunger and need for a coffee to focus! It is the body’s way of taking in the world’s stimuli and turning it into responses. Trauma is any adverse event (physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, disaster, divorce, parental death, parental incarceration, medical trauma, refugee trauma, and terrorism) specifically early childhood trauma, occurs between the ages of 0-6. Sensory development forms before attachment, emotion regulation and behavior regulation which means infants and toddler’s experiences are kept as sensory memories. They do not have the language to make sense of their experiences. (1). Early traumatic experiences seriously impact the development of the sensory system, in addition to keeping the child in a fight, flight, freeze state. Trauma can present as sensory difficulties such as hypersensitivity to sound, touch or light or hypo-sensitivity to these stimuli.

There is a “Window of Tolerance” or “Optimal Arousal Zone” that each child and adult has within themselves. The window of tolerance is the ability that an individual has to regulate their emotions and remain alert, focused and available to learn, socialize and function.

A child that has a small window of tolerance, may become overloaded easily and react aggressively to events that may seem trivial to the outsider. A child may also hang out in the low activation zone and present as lethargic or slow to respond, “numb.”


Sensory based activities are a great way to organize the sympathetic nervous system and regulate arousal.

“Tactile, vestibular and proprioception are the foundations for emotional stability and touch is integral to attachment and relationship. Vestibular and proprioception are both grounding and connecting to the world around us” (2) Proprioception involves pushing, pulling and jumping; activities that provide input to the muscle and joints. Here are some types of proprioceptive activities:

  • Wall pushes

  • Baking with a rolling pin/rolling dough

  • Crawling through a tunnel

  • Bouncing on a ball or trampoline

  • Animal jumps such as frog jumps or walking like a crab

  • Hopscotch

  • Carrying a heavy laundry basket

  • Chair push-ups

Vestibular is the sense of the body in space and is responsible for identifying head position, direction of movement and speed of movement. Here are some vestibular targeted activities:

  • Dancing and twirling

  • Swinging (if you do not have a swing, use a blanket)

  • Somersaults and cartwheels

  • Roller Skating and biking

  • Laying upside down on the couch or chair

  • Spinning in an office chair

  • Jumping rope

  • Playing Twister

. Environmental and Routine adaptations to consider for children with trauma histories:

  • Dimming lights, especially fluorescent lights as these can flicker and be visually over-stimulating

  • Provide spaces that child can “escape” to such as a corner with a bean bag and some fidgets

  • Reduce bright colors and items on walls to prevent visual overstimulation

  • Provide a visual schedule to create consistency and structure

  • Allow child to trial items such as wiggle discs or sour /crunchy foods during tasks that require sustained focus and attention

  • If music is calming to child, provide music playlists for child to choose from and have on in the background during tasks

  • Provide child with deep pressure items or proprioceptive breaks (lap pads, yoga or carrying groceries)

Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive list and may not work for every child. These are options and ideas to trial. Please reach out to an occupational therapist if you have specific questions. References

(1)Developmental trauma close up. (2017). Retrieved from (2) Barthel, K. (2017). Trauma informed care and sensory modulation. ATTACh conference. Retrieved from (3) Images retrieved from

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