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Sensory Threshold

The Dunn Sensory model is very helpful when looking at sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behaviors in your child. It is important to remember that a child can have different preferences between different sensory systems; for example, they may seek a lot of proprioceptive input (running, jumping, and climbing) but avoid vestibular input (swing). Let's look at what sensory threshold means and try to apply this to all 8 sensory systems.

Sensory threshold is easy to break down if we refer to it as a bucket. Each child has a sensory bucket that gets poured into each day. For example, loud unexpected noises, unwanted touching (being bumped into line at school), a lot of visual distractions, clothing with uncomfortable tag, and/or having to sit still for long period of time. As the day progresses for a child they experience all types of input; some of these are preferred and only pour a little into their bucket while some are non-preferred and pour a lot more into their bucket. If a child does not have coping strategies such as taking a visual break, asking for help, taking deep breaths, re-arranging in their chair, and/or proprioceptive input they are not able to pour out of their bucket.

Let's apply this to us as adults; we are constantly doing things throughout the day consciously and unconsciously to be productive and regulate our sensory system. We might wake up and work out, this allows us to release dopamine and endorphins to better cope with situations. Then we might have a cup of coffee which is stimulate to help with focus and attention. As the day goes on, we know when to take a break from work or ask for help. We chew gum to calm our nerves and keep from falling asleep at times. We have learned through experience what coping strategies work for us and what does not. Therefore, we have successfully learned how to know when our bucket is getting too full, and we might be headed for a meltdown. Once we notice that our bucket is full or that we are overwhelmed, we have coping strategies that help us to pour out of our bucket. Therefore, in the end we do not have that moment of water running over our buckets edge, because we know how to pour it out. As if imagining the fun water bucket at water parks. It knows when it weighs too much to bear, and that must have some relief.

This is what we are trying to accomplish for our children.

We are trying to:

  1. Help them know what their sensory preferences are vs. sensory aversions

  2. Help them to express how they are feeling.

  3. Help them find appropriate and effective coping strategies.

Sensory threshold is the basic term for knowing how much sensory information your child can tolerate before they react. Every child is different in how they interpret and experience their world. Understanding your child's sensory threshold is a beginning step in helping them manage living in their environment. Then we hope to help them grow to develop greater tolerance for new situations and social activities.

Let's discuss hypersensitive threshold vs. hyposensitivity threshold.

Hypersensitive threshold often means acting out, have meltdowns, withdraw, and/or shut down when they get more sensory input than they can imagine. Their sensory bucket often overflows by a hug, a busy situation, squeaky cart wheel, bath time, grooming, or dressing.

Hypersensitivity threshold often requires more sensory input to react. They often don't feel pain the same way, often run into a wall or objects, and have a hard time knowing dangerous situations. They often attempt to do very dangerous things such as climbing and jumping too high off a surface. They are often more physical with peers such as hitting, pushing, screaming, and/or making loud noises without necessarily meaning to harm or hurt someone. Children with a high threshold often love to jump on furniture, spin around, and often look "out of control". Their bucket is often overflowing but they seek more sensory input to reorganize their bodies.

What to do if your child has a low threshold or their bucket is overflowing often:

What to do if your child has a high threshold or their bucket takes a lot of input (hard to keep them organized):


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