Positive relationships

Processing the world, one sense at a time

Why sensory difficulties aren’t something to be ‘fixed,’ and how to support SEND children
the 7 senses in the early years
November 17, 2021
Reading time:
a light bulb with the letter p inside it

a black and white image of two hearts

famly icon - piggy bank

a black and white image of two houses



a black and white image of a bunny and a bottle


a black and white heart icon

With Famly since

In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • Our senses play a huge role in helping us survive. From letting our brains know when it’s too hot or too cold, to alerting us when we’re about to fall, they help us navigate the world. 
  • So what happens if your senses have a little difficulty processing all that information? And is that only an issue we associate with SEND children?
  • Find out why sensory processing is such a big part of understanding ourselves, the world around us, and why we should be mindful of children with SEND and sensory difficulties.

When you think of sensory aversions or sensory overloads, like sensitivities towards light, sound or textures, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? 

A lot of us associate these with children on the autism spectrum. Maybe you’ve seen a child on the spectrum having a ‘meltdown’ because they’re in tight clothing and can’t stand the feel of it on their skin. Or trying to hide away because there’s too much light around them. 

We’ve written about why smell is such a huge part of child development, and why sensory play has benefits ranging from creativity to fine-tuning motor skills. Our senses play a massive role in how we understand our surroundings and our own bodies, but if our brain is wired a little differently, then reactions towards things like light, texture and loud noises might not look the way we think they should. 

We all process the world through our senses, and sometimes we need to give a little extra support to children, particularly those with SEND, who really need it. Today we’ll dive into what sensory difficulties might look like, why they aren’t something to be ‘fixed,’ and how to think of sensory issues in a neuroinclusive way. 

Read on for top tips on how to support a neuroinclusive model to respect SEND sensory needs, and why we should reframe the negative way we talk about them. 

Girl smelling white flower

The 7 senses 

Before we dive into different sensory processing needs, we need to nail down what the senses actually are, and how they help us understand the world. 

Most of us accept that we have five senses. Smell, touch, hearing, taste and sight…right? We actually have quite a few more! Rachael Webster, Lecturer in Special and Inclusive Education at Nottingham Trent University, points out that that it can be as many as twenty-two

For the purpose of this piece, we’ll only dive into an extra two that Rachael finds extremely important in the Early Years: proprioception and vestibular. These sound fancy, but they’re just big names for things you experience on a daily basis.

  • Proprioception: This lets us know where our body is in space. So our sense of proprioception lets our muscles and joints tell the brain whereabouts we are - like if our feet are on the ground or if our head is upside down. 
  • Vestibular: This is the balance centre.There are little vestibular organs in your inner ear that help you find your sense of balance, and this sends messages to your brain to make sure you don’t fall over when you start walking.

Our senses send messages to our brains to help us survive. This can be letting us know when we need to put a jacket on because it’s cold, to helping us stay upright. Or, more simply, our sense of touch lets us know when something’s hot and we shouldn’t touch it! 

So what does it look like when the wires sending messages to our brain look a little different? 

Toddlers playing

Sensory Processing Disorder and outbursts

We all have different likes and dislikes - maybe you hate mustard or find the feeling of flour a nightmare. Yet there’s a big difference between a dislike and a sensory difficulty.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a significant struggle processing things through your senses. A child might be overly responsive when it comes to one or multiple senses - they might hide under the table to block out the bright lights. Or they could be under-responsive, and hang upside down from a tree so they can feel ‘where’ their body is. In short, it’s more than reacting to something that’s a mild discomfort. 

Rachael states that, historically, sensory processing needs are rooted in Autism or ADHD, and more recently with OCD. How many times have you heard that children on the autism spectrum don’t like to be hugged, for example? But there’s a huge amount of anecdotal evidence that sensory processing difficulties aren’t necessarily linked to SEND. 

Which is exactly why we need to reframe the way we think about them.  

Sensory issues aren’t something to ‘fix’, or a SEND symptom to overcome. They’re just different ways of managing our own emotions and ability to cope in situations. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what a ‘usual’ response to sensory information might look like, and why reframing our idea of sensory issues matters. 

Girl holding yellow plastic cup full of macaroni

‘Normal’ responses 

On a daily basis, we’re completely bombarded with information left, right, and centre. 

Crossing a street might seem like a natural task, but you’re using all your senses to help you cross it - from keeping an eye on the traffic, the noise around you, to your sense of balance and direction. Most of us don’t even think about it, but we’re taking in a lot of information at once. 

If you have trouble processing loud noises, you might find this impossible. You might have to slam your fingers in your ears, or wear noise-cancelling headphones just to be able to concentrate. Or you might have a full-blown meltdown because there’s just too much for your brain to handle. 

And the thing is, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that response, it’s just different to what a lot of us are used to.

“In children with OCD or who lie on the autism spectrum, their reactions are more obvious. Yet with others, it’s really hard to tell because they create their own coping mechanisms,” says Rachael. A lot of children build their own toolkit to handle it by themselves, so we don’t know they’ve had difficulties until they reach primary school.

When it comes down to it, there are no ‘normal’ responses. SEND children have more obvious reactions, yet that doesn’t mean that children aren’t actually coping and responding to sensory difficulties in their own way. Think about your own life: if you’re in the middle of a crowd, maybe you fiddle with jewellery to stay calm. Or you tap something repeatedly if you’re feeling anxious. Those are coping mechanisms! 

The big ideas

Why SEND learners are heavily affected

It’s clear that we should be mindful when we’re thinking about how differently we all process our surroundings. But respecting sensory needs actually goes hand in hand with consent and control - particularly when we’re talking about SEND children. 

Why is this the case? Rachael encourages you to think of it like this: 

  • Think of something you really don’t like. Maybe you hate rollercoasters because you can’t stand being thrown in different directions (which has to do with that proprioception sense!) or you hate hugs as you’re sensitive to touch. Nobody pressures you to do those things, do they? They’re socially acceptable sensory aversions. 
  • Children in general are often pressed to do things they don’t particularly want to do. We don’t always ask them permission. Take hugs for example - it’s not acceptable to say no to a hug when you’re a child.

Children with SEND tend to have even less agency. If they’re not able to carry out activities other children are enjoying, we might feel as though we need to give them other ways to experience the same fun.

For example:

  • A child is visually impaired, and you’d like to give them an activity to excite their other senses. It’s very common to get them to handle jelly, play dough or cornflour that they can dig their hands into. 
  • This is often without time, space or warning - we just assume they’ll love it because they aren’t getting stimulated through their sight. Yet we don’t ask them if they’d actually like to do that. 

Even though this comes from a good place, it isn’t respecting that children have a voice, and a choice over their bodies. Rachael suggests asking first, and if they don't want to, respond with ‘That’s okay, we can try again another day.’ Not only will this tell you a lot about the child’s sensory preferences, but it shows them that they’re able to make decisions for themselves about what comes into contact with their bodies. 

Where to next? 

As a practitioner, you’ve got a wonderful chance to give children ownership over what sensory input they would and wouldn’t like, and to support them when they find certain things a little difficult. 

“In terms of strategies, I would argue that it’s the job of the adults in the space,” says Rachael. “The key thing with sensory processing needs is that there needs to be measures, an approach across the teams.”

This should start with having a registered Occupational Therapist if you do suspect that children need additional support. However, if we’re looking at a neuroinclusive model across the setting, then there are small steps to ensure that you’re letting children take control, and starting a conversation with them around their sensitivity, aversion or sensory difficulty: 

  • First and foremost - be aware. You may not even realise that some children have sensory processing issues - it might be hard to wrap your head around the idea itself. But being aware and mindful that some children may have undiagnosed SPD, or difficulties, is the first step. 
  • Routines are crucial. For neurodiverse children, routines are usually crucial, states Rachael. Throwing those out the window with surprises or emotional extremes, like unexpected Christmas activities and a flurry of holiday excitement, can cause a lot of distress. Take it slowly, and accept that they may not want to join in. 
  • Preparation is key. If a child is overstimulated, it’s about keeping routines, avoiding surprises and easing them into it. If it’s coming up to Bonfire night, have a video of some fireworks, ask them how they feel about it, and try not to force an idea of ‘socially acceptable’ fun onto them. 
  • Don’t have low expectations. Children should have ownership over their aversions and discomforts. Ask them if they’d like to join in something new and sensory, and if they say not today, then try again another day. Giving them that choice is key. 
  • Reframe the question. “Sensory processing needs to be thought of as purely another way that children respond to the world,” says Rachael. It’s not out of our expertise, it’s about looking at it from another angle. Instead of narrowing it down to meltdowns and outbursts, let’s look at sensory processing as a way of analysing and understanding everything around us. 
  • Be kind. This is part and parcel of your everyday practice, but being kind goes such a long way. Try and be as patient, as kind, and as understanding as you can.
download pdf
graphical user interface, text, application
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Get famly free

Try learning journals for free

Add observations, and build digital learning journals to share with families instantly. All with your completely free 14-day trial.

Get started