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Sensory Circuits

Introduction

Sensory differences can impact significantly on play and learning as differences interpreting sensory information can have an impact on how an individual feels, thinks, behaves, or responds. This may affect how a child/young person is able to focus and engage in play and learning opportunities at any given time. Sensory circuits can be a useful way of providing some of the sensory feedback an individual might be seeking.

For more information about Sensory Differences: check out Leeds Mencap’s ‘Sensory Differences’ information

What is a Sensory Circuit?

Childrens Choice Therapy describes a sensory circuit as:

A sequence of physical activities that are designed to alertorganise, and calm the child. The sensory circuit aims to facilitate sensory processing to help children regulate and organise their senses in order to achieve the ‘just right’ or optimum level of alertness required for effective learning.

Many schools now incorporate this into the daily routine for children who may have sensory differences.

General principles

  • Sensory circuits can be completed by a small group of children in school or by your child at home
  • It should be done first thing in the morning and after lunch if possible. Some children may need more than this
  • Should last no longer than 15 – 20 minutes
  • Sensory circuits should be active, physical and fun!

How to set up a sensory circuit

  • Complete a sensory checklist about the child/children who are going to take part, to identify their needs. Make sure these are reflected in the activities in the circuit
  • The order of activities is important. When you put together a sensory circuit choose 2 alerting activities, then 2 organising activities and then 1 calming activity.

Alerting activities – provide both vestibular (movement and balance) and proprioceptive (awareness of body in space) stimulation as these can help the child to become more alert.

Organising activities – provide a motor, balance or timing challenge, and requires the child to plan, organise and/or sequence their movement.

Calming Activities – provide proprioceptive (deep pressure) input and heavy muscle work which can have a calming and organising effect. Ensure the child leaves the circuit and engages in their activities calm, centred and ready for the day ahead.

Examples of activities

AlertingOrganisingCalming
Jumping on a trampetteCatching a ball or beanbag, throwing a ball or beanbag to a targetMassaging hands, feet, arms or legs
Sitting and bouncing on a gym ballBalancing on wobble boards or walking along a gym benchChair or wall push-ups
Star jumps, marching, step-ups, skippingCrawling through a tunnelChild lies on their tummy over a gym ball and rolls over gently, backwards and forwards
Bunny hops/crab walks/ frog jumping/squat jumpsJumping through hoops (3-5 hoops)Having balls rolled over their backs (ideally medium/large gym ball
Lying over a gym ball on their tummy, roll forwards and weight bear through the armsLog rolling – with hands clasped and arms stretched out above the headFor older children, stretch a theraband or resistance bands in front of their body or above their head. Repeat 5-10 times
Spinning a hoopBlowing bubbles or blowing a paper ball to a targetHot-dogs (rolling child/young person up tightly in a blanket)
Action rhymes – Row, Row, Row your Boat, Heads and Shoulders etc.Skipping and jumping over a moving ropeLying under a weighted blanket

What are the benefits of Sensory Circuits?

The primary benefit of sensory circuits is to focus concentration in readiness for learning and the day ahead, however Sensory Surroundings Ltd  say they can be other long term benefits including:

  • Development of motor skills
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Improving co-ordination and balance
  • Improving behaviour

Can I set up a Sensory circuit at home?

Yes!

Setting up a sensory circuit at home is easy. You could set up a circuit in your garden, go to a local green space or set it up indoors. Some of the activities don’t need equipment or use things that you may already have at home.

View examples of sensory circuit activity cards in our sensory resources section here.

Check out ideas for setting up a sensory circuit at home here: Example sensory circuit info and ideas for home.pdf (starsteam.org.uk)

Did you know that Leeds MENCAP has a Toy Library?

This is a fantastic way to try out some equipment to use as part of a sensory circuit. Parents are carers can loan up to 4 items at a time for up to 4 weeks for an annual membership fee of only £25.

Click here to browse the Leeds MENCAP Toy Library

Examples of Toy Library equipment suitable for a sensory circuit:

Alerting Activities:

Whizzy Dizzy
Rhyme time bag
Pedal Roller

Organising Activities:

Wobble Balance Board
Trace and balance board
Rainbow balance snake

Calming Activities:

Body sock
Weighted blanket
Weighted sausage dog

Additional support from Leeds MENCAP

Speak to other parents with children with SEN and disabilities on our closed Facebook group.

Follow us on Facebook to hear about our upcoming events.

Check out the rest of our Family Support offer. We have:

  • Weekly Chats and Tots coffee morning
  • Family Support workers who can offer advice, signposting and support
  • Lots of tips and resources about sensory differences and sensory circuits on our website

Additional support and resources

This information is not affiliated with Leeds MENCAP.

For more information about sensory circuits:

Children’s choice therapy information page

Sensory Circuits A Quick guide with resources.docx (live.com)

Sensory Differences

Introduction

Our bodies constantly receive, register and process information from our senses. The commonly known senses are sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch but it is helpful to also think of other senses such as:

  • Body Position also known as proprioception – A sense of where parts of our body are in relation to one other and the environment.
  • Movement also known as vestibular – Tells us if we are moving, and, if so, in what direction and how fast.
  • Internal Body Sense or interoception – Information about hunger, thirst, pain, illness, body temperature, if we need to sleep, use the toilet, changes in heart rate, breathing, alertness and feelings like ‘butterflies’ or a ‘sinking feeling’ when we experience strong emotions.

Some children may have a sensory difference relating to one or several of the senses. Many children with Autism have sensory differences and/or have a sensory disorder.

Types of Sensory difference

A child may be over-sensitive (hypersensitive) or under sensitive (hyposensitive) or both.

Hypersensitivity

If someone is hypersensitive, they may experience a very strong reaction to sensory information in the environment. Their senses can feel overloaded and that can cause anxiety, stress and real physical pain. Sensory overload can lead to distressed behaviour, meltdowns or a need to escape.

Hyposensitivity

If someone is hyposensitive, they may experience weak sensory information. People who have a low sensitivity to sensory information may be less sensitive to pain and may be less able to control balance or physical coordination as they are less aware of their body’s position. 

Examples of Sensory difference

SENSEHYPERSENSITIVITYHYPOSENSITIVITY
Sight  Distracted by certain lighting
Over sensitive to bright lighting
Finds busy rooms challenging
Looks for bright/flashing lights
Enjoys playing with toys that spin
Poor depth perception – problems throwing and catching
Hearing  Strong dislike of loud unexpected noises
Avoids certain areas of school/home that are often to loud (school hall)
Covers/ puts fingers in ears to avoid noise
Makes noise but seems unaware – banging, tapping, humming
Loves loud equipment
SmellReacts to slight smells that don’t appear to bother others
Certain smells cause them to feel or be sick
Dislike of individuals with distinctive perfume or shampoo
Smells food before tasting it
Does not notice strong odours (that most people would complain about)
May lick objects
TasteOnly eats bland foods
Certain food textures cause discomfort
Eats the same food repeatedly
Preference for strong flavours
Eats non-food items
Chews on clothing such as jumper sleeves
TouchOnly tolerates certain materials for clothing
Dislikes being touched unexpectedly
Dislikes hands getting messy, may wash hands frequently  
Enjoys touching everyone/thing
Seeks out messy play
Prefers tight clothing
ProprioceptionDislikes busy environments and crowded areas
Dislikes tight clothing
Difficulties with fine motor skills
Enjoys rough play
Limited awareness of personal space
Enjoys bear hugs and deep pressure exercises
VestibularDifficulties in activities that involve movement
Easily loses balance
Dislikes going up and down stairs
Need to rock, spin, swing
Seeks opportunities for movement
Climbs on furniture/equipment

Interoception – examples include:

  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Not recognising feeling hot/cold, hungry
  • Poor sleep routine
  • Over or under sensitive to pain

Link to video about the impact of sensory differences: https://youtu.be/PA7F8LBG4Iw

Strategies to help

Below are examples of practical tips to help with sensory differences. There is also help available from your GP who may be able to refer your child to other NHS services such as Occupational Therapy.

HYPERSENSITIVEHYPOSENSITIVE
Use a blackout tent or low light area for child to useChoose clothing made from fabric your child prefers and cut off tagsProvide ear defendersManage transitions to avoid busy timesMake a feely box with regularly changing items of different texturesUse visual prompts to help your child understand instructionsUse a wobble cushion to help with sittingRegular sensory breaks with opportunities to climb and balanceWeighted blankets

Sensory Circuits:

Childrens Choice Therapy describes a sensory circuit as:

‘A sequence of physical activities that are designed to alertorganise and calm the child. The sensory circuit aims to facilitate sensory processing to help children regulate and organise their senses in order to achieve the ‘just right’ or optimum level of alertness required for effective learning. The circuit should be an active, physical and fun activity that children enjoy doing.’

Sensory circuits should ideally be completed first thing in the morning any many schools now incorporate this into the daily routine for children who may have sensory differences. For more information about sensory circuits read Leeds MENCAP’s information sheet here.

Sensory Overload

Sensory overload is when one or more of the senses is receiving lots of information at once and is unable to process it properly, causing overload. This is usually something in the environment such as a fire alarm going off or being in a busy, noisy place. Sensory overload can cause stress, anxiety and discomfort.

Signs that children are experiencing sensory overload could include:

  • A change in their behaviour
  • Trying to block out certain senses by covering their ears, eyes etc.
  • Refusing to go to or running away from certain places

Learning to recognise sensory overload is very important. It is better to prevent it than to ‘deal with the consequences’. Autism Help suggest the following tips to help reduce the chance of sensory overload:

  • Keep a journal – when visiting places you think your child may be experiencing sensory overload write down where you are, the behaviour they display and what could be the possible cause e.g. noise. You could complete a sensory checklist for your child – Link here to an example from STARS Sensory Checklist (colourful).docx (live.com)
  • Have a sensory kit – once you have an idea about what may be causing the overload you can take things with you that might help, for example ear defenders
  • Visit comfortable environments – make a note of places where your child does not seem to experience sensory overload so you can visit them again

Additional support from Leeds MENCAP

Speak to other parents with children with SEN and disabilities on our closed Facebook group.

Follow us on Facebook to hear about our upcoming events.

Check out the rest of our Family Support offer. We have:

  • Weekly Chats and Tots coffee morning
  • Family Support workers who can offer advice, signposting and support
  • Lots of tips and resources about sensory difference on our website

Additional support and resources

This information is not affiliated with Leeds MENCAP.

Watch a video about Autism and sensory sensitivity here: Autism and sensory sensitivity – YouTube

Read  Top 5 autism tips to manage sensory differences here: Top 5 autism tips: managing sensory differences

Read a guide for parents about intervention for sensory differences here: sensory%20differences%20and%20approaches%20to%20interven.pdf (councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk)

Food aversions and selective eating for children with ASD

Many children with autism find mealtimes challenging and have specific food aversions. They may struggle with the texture, colour or smell of certain foods. As adults, we have been quite desensitized to the textures, flavours, and smells of food, but many children have not. In the first few years of life, mealtimes are all about processing the sensory input they are receiving from various foods. Often, when kids display picky eating, the touch, taste, or smell of a food is being processed in their brain as dis-pleasurable in some way, particularly for children with sensory processing difficulties associated with ASD.

A need for routine may mean they find it difficult to try new foods, eat in new places of use unfamiliar plates and utensils. For some children, the social expectations involved in sitting through a family dinner may be a challenge in itself.

In severe cases, a limited diet can result in nutrition deficiencies, poor growth rate, or weight loss.

Tips for meal times for children with ASD

  • Relax before meal times so you and your child both feel calm
  • Develop a meal schedule so your child knows what to expect and when – when they will be eating, where they will sit and how long for.
  • Encourage food play – allow your child to touch, smell and taste unfamiliar foods at their own pace.
  • Involve your child in the food preparation process.
  • Focus on positive behaviours at meal times – negative behaviours may be a way for your child to escape the meal. Focus instead on trying to engage your child in conversations about the food or praising your child for sitting nicely or trying a new food.
  • If they are able to, ask them to explain their likes and dislikes to you.
  • Introduce new foods slowly and alongside regularly eaten foods – For example, if your child only eats white toast, for example, you could start by introducing different brands of the same variety. Then, you could introduce a whole wheat variety, and eventually add small amounts of butter, jam, or other spreads.
  • Avoid brand dependency by removing food from marked packaging and frequently switching the brand of the food item.
  • Don’t take it personally – your child’s food preferences are not a reflection on your cooking skills.
  • Be patient and manage your expectations – changing eating habits can take time and you are doing your best.
Image showing a difference between fruits and vegetables and a cracker or biscuit. The title states 'Why does my child struggle with fruits and veggies?'
The image is split into two rows. The top row shows 4 different blueberries with the words: juicy, squishy, sweet and sour. The bottom row has 4 pictures of the same cracker with the words: the same every time.

Speak to your GP, health visitor or dietitian if you are concerned about your child’s eating.

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