Reducing Sensory Sensitivities

Reducing Sensory Sensitivities

Teresa Garland, MOT, OTR

We’ve all worked with children who are sensitive to sound, lights, touch, tastes, smells or pain. Some kids are sensitive to everything. I was one of those kids and still have a lot of sensitivities. But surprisingly, I do not have a problem with going to the dentist. Here’s my secret: As a child, I had a great dentist who told me to focus on something else while he worked on my teeth. I did that and got through the procedure without too much discomfort. It was a good lesson and I remembered to do it whenever I went back to see him.

But I didn't learn how to generalize that lesson to other situations until much later. In my twenties, I was in the midst of working on a home remodeling project with a friend and hammered my thumb instead of the nail. Ouch.  I was dramatically in pain. My friend told me I was a baby, and that I should focus my attention on something else until the pain died down. I did that, and miracle of miracles, it worked. How did he know that and I didn't? The answer was he had played sports and I had not. Sensory kids don’t play sports because it's noisy and you get bumped a lot. That's a big problem! As a result they miss out on many of life’s social and practical lessons – including to put their attention on something else when they are in pain.

We can help sensitive kids learn a new trick. If Zoey is playing in the sprinkler and gets water in her face, rather than stand by as she focuses on it in discomfort, suggest that she shift her attention outward to something else, like the sprinkler, her feet or her hands. If Martin is standing next to an alarm that sounds for several seconds, he can bring his attention back into his body (and his hands over his ears) and in that way stay grounded.

Learning this lesson is a game changer for a sensitive child, and here's why. Our brain operates with great efficiency, always trying to predict what will happen next. If I typically focus on sensory discomforts, the brain will assume that that's what I want to pay attention to, and it will make attending to discomfort a high priority. On the other hand, once I begin to ignore discomfort, and focus on something else, discomfort loses its priority over time. Let me repeat that. Discomfort loses priority, when we don't attend to it. What a great lesson for our kids!

Here’s a little bit of the science:

The brain circuitry that processes priorities is in the right anterior insular cortex (rAI). It feeds priorities to the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which handles behavioral, motor and emotional reactions and cognitive redirection.


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