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Characteristics of sensation avoiding children

  • Emotionally reactive, sensitive, can be anxious
  • Resistant to change, reliant on structure and rigid rituals
  • Hyper vigilant: always scan environment and very intuitive and detail orientated
  • Withdraw from stimuli and/or people
  • Only tolerate limited clothing and/or foods
  • Refuse messy activities
  • Withdraw from touch/cuddles
  • Can be aggressive and demanding
  • When the above symptoms (together with other indicators) present excessively and impact on the child's learning and development, it is also described as SPD (sensory processing disorder), and in this format sensory defensiveness. Defensiveness can occur in only one system (i.e. touch, auditory) but also in various other sensory systems.

exploringSensation avoiding children have a tendency to experience stress and sensory overload regularly. However, all children, ranging between low to high thresholds, all go through stages of experiencing sensory overload. Sensory overload is often the precursor to stress, anxiety, negative behavior, poor concentration and scholastic difficulties. We tend to live in overloaded and over stimulating worlds and parents should acquire a “less is more” approach rather than “more is more”.

Some sensory intelligent tips:

Quiet time and spaces are crucial for our children. They need more time out to recharge their batteries.

Creating a "womb" space in their bedrooms is a very good strategy. They can use these spaces independently when they are feeling overloaded. It is however very important to stress it as a time-out strategy and not a time-out discipline imposed by the parent! This prepares them for the next activity.

Planning and preparation are crucial. When children are prepared in advance they can create internal dialogue for themselves to prepare and get ready. Limit spur of the moment outings and surprises as they prefer predictability and structure. They want to know what, where and how things going to happen.

Tactile sensitive children are fussy when it comes to clothing textures. It really does create immense discomfort and sometimes even pain for them. It distracts them continuously and kind of “takes over” the brain so that they get irritated very quickly. Be considerate to their needs when you buy new clothing; choose textures wisely with them present. Do encourage new clothing items, but don't force it upon them. It is just not worth it! Also washing garments a few times before wearing helps.

Big gatherings like birthday parties, crowds or concerts are often sensory over stimulating. Their systems just cannot tune out all the background sensory information and they get overloaded and experience stress and discomfort.

With movement sensitivity, often car sickness can present itself. Let the child chew on biltong, an apple, carrot or gum as it can be self-regulatory and reduce car sickness. Movement sensitivity will also impact his choice of sport. Movement like running or biking will be more tolerable than gymnastics. Increased head movements and upside down movements such as in gymnastics overload the movement system quickly.

Bright lights and people moving around as often seen in shopping malls can overload the visual system. Shopping malls can be noisy, contributing to auditory overload. Being touched and bumped by people flares up the sensory nervous system that is sensitive for touch.


Sensory inputs that are calming are: deep, firm, touch pressure; slow, rhythmic movement, heavy work against resistance; soft, gentle colors and lighting; warm, smooth and sweet tastes and lavender and chamomile smells. When your child is in overload use them. These strategies are particularly relevant to sensation avoiding children.

Sensory input that are alerting are: light touch; loud, intense rock music; bright lights, colors and clutter; fast, irregular movement; cold, sour, spicy and minty tastes and mint and citrus smells. Use them when your child needs stimulation and "waking" up. These strategies are particularly relevant to sensation seeking children.

When the system reaches shutdown it always is an unproductive state but often necessary in order to recharge. It's like having a power failure; your systems switch off due to shortage/overload somewhere. Sleep at night is our system's in-built power recharge system and very necessary. Our children (especially the roots) need to sleep well at night.

Knowing and anticipating our needs as well as our children's needs reduce overload and conflict. It also is often in contrast to our own needs. Selecting activities based on their potential to either overload or stimulate our children are crucial and imperative for positive parenting.

About the Author:

Dr Annemarie Lombard, CEO and Founder of Sensory Intelligence. Annemarie is a registered Occupational Therapist and Author of the Book "Sensory Intelligence - Why it matters more than IQ and EQ" (Metz Press).

Know The Jargon - ADHD Acronyms

ADDer - a person who has ADHD or ADD

ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder

ADD - Attention Deficit Disorder

SCT - Sluggish Cognitive Tempo - a new name for ADD

ODD - Oppositional Defiance Disorder

CD - Conduct Disorder

OCD - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

 Bi-polar - Bi-polar Disorder, used to be Manic-Depression 

SPD - Sensory Processing Disorder

PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder

ACT -  Action Consequence Trigger - monitoring forms devised and supplied by Living ADDventure®