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The Sensory Under-Responsive Child

spraypaint-sliderAlex is 6 years old. Unlike his peers he is lethargic, minimally verbally responsive to engagement, has difficulty making eye contact and hesitates entering into gross or fine- motor activities.

He seems shut down as if enshrouded in a fog that limits his ability to interact in his world.

Children like Alex are often under-responsive to tactile, proprioceptive/vestibular input, poor body in space perception and awkward motor abilities both gross and fine. In addition they are easy bullying targets by their classmates due to the above-mentioned characteristics.

They are often unpopular because their motor skills lag behind their peers due to the sensory issues that limit opportunities for learning motor skills.

This under-responsiveness within the vestibular system according to Ayres, can have far-reaching consequences. The neurological connections within the vestibular system reach into the visual system, impacting receptors in the eye, (tracking, reading and visual responsiveness), muscle tone (large and smaller eye muscles as well) and balance (postural security).

These children often have emotional deregulation as well, making them cry more easily and becoming withdrawn. Observed to be sluggish, apathetic, or clumsy social interactions often become painful. It is easy to understand why others might perceive these children to be self-absorbed and inattentive.

In a classroom these children are often the ones who stay in from recess “to finish their work”, when recess is exactly what they need to jump-start their sleeping sensory system.

What can be done to help this child within the occupational therapy setting and as the OT consults to the classroom teacher?

First explain to the teacher that this is an issue of sensory modulation not a behavioral choice on the part of the child. Without getting too technical outline that there are systems that modulate input that are skewed and this child is getting “static” in his interpretation system of incoming stimuli.

This snapshot should help explain why the child looks a particular way and why often-frustrating behaviors are unintentional and need to be addressed by alternative and modified methods.

Classroom suggestions to help teachers address these issues and more effectively teach and reach these sensory under-responsive children (SUR).

Remember that the SUR child cannot go “faster”, talk more, transition better, etc. just because he is encouraged to do so. But he can with the right strategies in place.

Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L, is the author of Learning Re-enabled, a guide for parents, teachers and therapists and Write Incredibly Now™ 12 hours to better handwriting. She is the Executive Director of Children’s Special Services, LLC, in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached on the Web at or through her blog at Her WIN™ program is available through


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One Comment
  1. Kelly
    February 11, 2015 |