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Managing Sensory Preferences

Every child has different preferences and dislikes when it comes to sensations. A child may respond differently to specific sounds, smells, tastes, sights, textures, or movements.

Sometimes preferences around touch and the feeling of objects, impacts their ability or interest in participating in an activity or sport. These sensory processing challenges may be an obstacle for them to be active.

For example, if a child doesn’t like the feeling of tight clothing, they may resist wearing particular uniforms or sporting outfits. Or avoid the sport altogether.

Similarly, a child who doesn’t tolerate noisy environments may refuse to participate in a dance class if the music is too loud.

What might at first seem like a behaviour issue might instead mean that a sensory need isn’t being met. If so, there are some ways to help overcome sensory barriers to participation in children and youth.

Some tips for managing sensory sensitivities:

  • Try out clothing before the activity starts: If your child resists tight clothing, like a swimsuit, look for looser fitting alternatives that still meet the demands of the activity. If a jersey is irritating against their skin, wearing a tight fitting shirt (i.e. Under Armour) beneath their jersey can help lessen that sensation. 
  • Check your equipment: Certain equipment can bother children, like tight-fitting ski goggles, itchy shin guards, or the feel of a new hockey helmet on their head. Have your child try on the required gear for a new sport beforehand and share their experience of it with you. You may be able to adjust strapping, or add or remove padding, to make it more comfortable. It’s also helpful to offer gradual exposure to a new set of equipment, such as putting on a new set of shoulder pads and walking around the house so they get used to the sensation of wearing it and it becomes more tolerable. In other cases, adding gear, such as earplugs or goggles for swimmers may help your child feel more comfortable.  
  • Get a feel for temperature: If your child has a strong preference for hot or cold weather, plan ahead to match up the activity, season and temperature they like best. You can also focus on staying active indoors if your child doesn’t tolerate the cold.    
  • Tune into sounds: Noisy environments can easily overwhelm some children, causing a sensory overload. Talk to the person in charge of an activity to see if there is a quiet time designated for children with sensory preferences. If a night class is too loud, you can also try to participate during a less busy time of day. 
  • Consider level of contact: If your child is sensitive to touch, finding sports that are slower paced with less unpredictable contact might be a good option (e.g. tennis, golf, martial arts). Perhaps it is helpful to encourage teammates to go for a congratulatory high-five rather than a surprise pat on the back.

Some children and youth with sensory processing disorder experience too much or too little stimulation through their senses. How it might affect their physical abilities is different for everyone and depends on which senses are affected. They may have trouble with body awareness, balance and coordination.

Working with an occupational therapist can help them feel more in control of their bodies and their environment, and with some creativity, help support their participation in physical activity.

Find more information on what sensory processing challenges are and how you can support your child, here

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