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What are the 7 senses?

Growing up, most of us learn about the “five senses.” Typically, that reference is speaking of our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. While these “external” senses are the most widely known, there are at least two more senses. The lesser known “internal” senses are proprioception and vestibular. To further understand each of these seven senses, read on…

The Visual System (Sense of Sight/Vision)

Sight is one of the most commonly known five senses. Sight is the is the ability of the eye to see objects around you. The sense of sight, derived from our visual system, supports us as infants and small children in recognizing our caregivers and differentiating them from strangers, and also in mastering fundamental skills like reading and writing. Sight continues to play an important role throughout adolescence and into adulthood, as a significant factor in academic success, in the workplace, in experiencing entertainment, and in interpersonal relationships. 

The Auditory System (Sense of Hearing/Sound)

Our sense of hearing enables us to perceive sounds, using our ears. Our auditory system uses the sounds to communicate different messages to our brains, so that we can do things like determine where a sound coming from, understand and communicate using verbal cues/language, interpret and differentiate sounds (for example, a knock on the door versus a dishwasher), and even be able to hear and understand directions. Our sense of hearing enables us to complete many tasks, is a huge part of relaxation and entertainment (think music, the sound of rain falling, waves crashing on the beach), and can even protect us from danger (dogs barking, horns honking, car tires screeching).

The Somatosensory System (Sense of Touch)

Our sense of touch, part of our somatosensory system, allows us to perceive touch, most often on our skin. We have receptors on our skin that allow us to feel and distinguish different types of touch and different levels of pressure, like light versus firm, brushing sensations versus stabbing sensations. These receptors in our skin also allow us to identify specific stimuli, like heat or cold. 

We can experience touch in an active way, where we deliberately come into contact with various items or people, or in a more passive way, for example when we sit on a chair or lean against a wall. As is the case with many if not all of the senses, our sense of touch can also help protect us from danger by allowing us to identify that a stove burner is hot, or a knife and scissors are sharp.

The Gustatory System (Sense of Taste)

Our Sense of Taste allows us to distinguish different foods, spices, and flavors. We perceive taste through our taste buds, which are located on the top of our tongue. Our sense of taste can add greatly to our enjoyment of life – just ask any foodie! Unfortunately, our ability to taste can diminish over time due to stimuli that dull it, for example smoking, drinking alcohol, and illnesses.  In addition to benefiting us in a pleasurable way, our sense of taste can also help protect us and keep us safe. For example, it can help us identify edible versus non-edible items (a carrot versus an ink pen) and may even help us to identify toxic or hazardous substances so that we can avoid ingesting them. It is worth considering that our sense of taste is frequently working in tandem with our sense of smell to provide information to our brain, both in identifying positive and negative stimuli.

The Olfactory System (Sense of Smell)

Our sense of smell can bring us great joy, like the smell of a cake baking or fresh flowers, and it can also enable us to detect certain odors and chemicals, which may protect us from danger. It may help us perceive a gas leak in our home, smell smoke from a fire, or recognize that food is rotten. When thinking of food, medicines, or other things that we may ingest, our sense of smell is typically working closely with our sense of taste, and our brains may find these two senses almost indistinguishable when we are eating, drinking, or swallowing things.

Proprioception (Sense of Body Awareness in Space)

Proprioception (body awareness) is one of the lesser known senses, and can be a bit harder to understand. Basically, proprioception refers to innately sensing, without looking, where our body parts are relative to the space we are in – for example, drying out hands on a towel in the dark. Proprioception also includes comprehending the strength it takes to move our body parts – for example, so that we can open a door without ripping it off its hinges or write with a pencil without continually breaking the tip.

From a practical perspective, although proprioception is something that many of us take for granted, in reality it is actually quite an impressive sense that can contribute greatly to our safety. We are able to combine proprioception with our sense of sight/eyes, for example, to perceive distance to an object and then understand our own body size relative to that distance so we do not walk into it. We are able to see a car coming and realize that our body is still (and should remain on!) the curb until the car has gone past. This rarely-discussed sense is actually quite important to our safety and survival.
The Vestibular System (Sense of Balance and Movement)
Like proprioception, our sense of balance and movement which is controlled by our vestibular system is a lesser known sense, but a vital one. Our vestibular system allows us to perceive g-force, acceleration, our head position, and body movements. It also helps us to maintain our balance and equilibrium, allows us to know when we are moving even if we cannot see that we are moving (for example in an elevator, plane, or lying down in the backseat of a car), and helps us to walk along narrow curbs or pathways without falling.

One of the this system’s most important functions is coordinating our eye and head movements, so that we can do things like copy information from a blackboard, look across a page when we are reading, and turn our heads when watching the ball during a tennis match. The importance of this system cannot be overstated, since our balance and equilibrium enable us to stand upright, walk, run, and participate a full myriad of life activities.

What are sensory toys?

Sensory toys are toys designed to engage interest and to encourage productive play. One of the key things that sets sensory toys apart from conventional toys, though, is that sensory toys are specifically designed to stimulate one or more of the seven senses. By stimulating the senses, these toys are more than entertaining - they attempt to support cognitive and physical development.
Additionally, the toys can be functional. Some of the benefits sensory toys and games may provide include enhanced focus, sustained calm in stressful situations, improved motor skills and bodily control, and decreased fear or discomfort around intense sensory stimuli. One study found that sensory toys can encourage social interaction in children with autism. Another autism sensory study concluded play structured around sensory activities can improve sensory awareness, and actually change how the brain reacts to touch, sound, sight, and movement. And because they can be so captivating, sensory toys can be effective reinforcers as well.
While most people can benefit from sensory toys, they hold a special place in the playrooms of autistic children. Many children with ASD experience problems processing sensory input. Sensory toys address these issues and in some instances can even help overcome them.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition where the brain has trouble receiving information from the senses. The disorder can affect one sense or multiple senses, and it can present as a person being oversensitive to stimuli (hypersensitive, sensory avoiding) – for example, overreacting to lights, sounds, and food textures, and finding clothes itchy and uncomfortable. Hypersensitive individuals may appear clumsy, and may be fearful of activities that require good balance, for example swinging on a playground, climbing on playground equipment, and riding a bike. They may also have low muscle tone and poor fine motor skills - which may be observable with activities like holding a pencil or fastening buttons.
By contrast, SPD may also present as a person being under responsive to stimuli (hyposensitive, sensory seeking), causing them to crave more intense “thrill-seeking” stimuli like jumping off tall things or swinging too high on the playground. Hyposensitive individuals are in constant motion, and enjoy fast, spinning and/or intense movement. Hyposensitive children often enjoy moving around and crashing into things.
It is important to note that individuals with SPD can be a mixture of oversensitive and under-sensitive, and that although SPD is typically identified in children, it may be present at any age.

Is your child a sensory seeker, sensory avoider or both?

A person with Sensory Processing Disorder may be an overreactive “sensory avoider” (hypersensitive) to stimuli, an under-reactive “sensory seeker” (hyposensitive), or a combination of both.

A sensory avoider will become overstimulated because they are sensitive to what is around them and will feel everything much more intensely than most other people. They may be picky eaters, and may do things like: cover their ears from noise, avoid wearing shoes, avoid messy hands, refuse bath time and other activities involving water, dislike smells, find normal lighting too bright, dislike brushing their teeth, avoid hugs, and show a low pain tolerance.
By contrast, a sensory seeker typically feels under stimulated and will seek out sensory input. They love movement, and being rough and active. They crave salty, spicy foods or extra chewy and crunchy foods, they may touch, lick, or chew on everything, even if it’s not edible, and they frequently have trouble sitting still/poor attention span. They have a higher pain tolerance than most, they are loud (with little volume control), and they may do things like: crashing into walls, floors, and people, climbing on everything (frequently way too high!), eating too much and/or overstuffing their mouths, and engaging in messy play (mud, shaving cream, etc.)
These are just some examples (there are many more), and although most of us engage in some of these behaviors on occasion, observable patterns may suggest that your child is have some issues with sensory processing.

Which sensory toys are best for my child?

There are so many great sensory toys out there that finding the right ones for your child’s age, interests, and abilities can be a bit overwhelming. How to choose?!

Sensory toys are toys that any child can enjoy and play with - balls, blocks, puzzles, dolls, trains, planes, cars - these are great toys for all kids…they just may add a little extra to your child with sensory processing issues. Also, remember, the toys children play with are the ones they find most engaging, so make sure to keep your child’s interests in mind. The best toy in the world serves no purpose if it sits in the closet!

There are several categories and types of toys for all ages, and the type you choose should be driven by both your child’s interests and your child’s natural tendencies (hyposensitive or hypersensitive).

Things that move, light up, spin, or revolve may be very appealing visual toys. You may want to consider trampolines or the game Twister to develop fine motor skills, or build their sense of body awareness with toys like crash pads and weighted wagons that require physicality and stimulate muscles and joints, as well as require understanding one’s own strength and the relative position of body parts. You may want to help develop tactile awareness, as well as improve motor skills, size discrimination, hand-eye coordination, and desensitization by selecting toys and games that require repetitive touching and keep the hands engaged. Many children with sensory processing issues are attracted to rhythmic and repetitive sounds, so non-irritating toys that deliver these types of sounds like pop tubes and rainmakers will engage your children’s auditory senses. Lastly, keep in mind that the benefits of play for your child increases when you join in – so grab your inner child, and PLAY!

We recommend focusing on only one or two of the above items with each toy, so you don’t run the risk of overwhelming and overstimulating your child. It is better to have a wide selection of toys and games with specific focuses than to try and capture multiple sensory stimuli within one or two toys.

You also have to consider whether you are looking for open-ended or close-ended toys. Close-ended toys  are toys like puzzles and board games that have a clear end point. Open-ended toys can be played with in many different ways and engage your child’s imagination. These are toys like action figures and building blocks - they do not have a definitive end point.

Both types of toys provide developmental benefits, so the best choice for your situation depends on the skills you are trying to develop. If you are trying to teach your child about the benefits of cooperation, a close-ended board game where they receive a reward for teamwork by completing the game is ideal. If you are trying to help your child stay calm, an open-ended fidget toy that can be used endlessly may be a perfect fit.

Now to the recommendations (you’ve waited long enough!) For younger children, consider activity centers, shape sorters, Legos, action figures, kitchen playsets, and trampolines. For teens, Smart Speakers are often a big hit. For all ages, you can consider things like Play-doh (who doesn’t love that?), card games (especially if your child is non-verbal), fidget toys, and jigsaw puzzles (great for stimulating executive function).

Hopefully that gave you some good ideas to consider. We suggest introducing a variety of activities, and including both open- and close-ended toys. Try board games that require a group and devices that can be played alone. Even consider educational tools that “gamify” learning and development. The more well-rounded your playroom, the more opportunities your child will have to grow.

How sensory toys can help child development.

Young infants and children learn and develop at a rapid rate. At only a few months old, babies are already absorbing copious amounts of information from the surrounding world, and relying on their senses to do so. Sensory play, which is play that involves stimulating a child’s senses, can help with this very important developmental phase.

Sensory play can help with many areas including language development, fine and gross motor skills, social interaction, and awareness. Sensory play is an important part of the skills which children subsequently go on to learn in later years such as reading, writing and solving math problems. This type of play helps to develop the senses and build cognitive skills, stimulating a child’s brain development. All children, regardless of whether they have sensory processing issues, can benefit from sensory play.

What are fine motor skills?

Fine motor skills refer to the ability to make small movements using the muscles in your hands, wrists, and fingers. Developing the fine motor skills helps with functions such writing, turning doorknobs, putting a plug into a socket, grasping small objects, fastening snaps and buckles, tying shoelaces, brushing teeth, and flossing. Weaknesses in fine motor skills can affect a child's ability to eat, write legibly, use a computer, turn pages in a book and even perform personal care tasks, such as dressing and grooming.

To develop or enhance fine motor skills, think of it in terms of both strength and precision. Activities to improve fine motor strength include things like squeezing Theraputty, making something out of dough like pizza or cookies, using syringes and eye droppers for art projects, using a hole puncher for art activities, or engaging in origami. Fun activities that help with fine motor precision include making a necklace or bracelet by threading beads, inserting coins into a piggy bank, using glue on a precise target for an art project, putting pegs into a pegboard or engaging in puzzles.

What are gross motor skills?

Gross motor skills involve the large muscles of the body, specifically the large muscles of the arms, legs, and trunk. Gross motor skills allow us to perform everyday functions, such as sitting, walking, running and jumping. They also includes eye-hand coordination skills such as ball skills (throwing, catching, kicking), riding a bike or scooter, and swimming.
Some activities that will help improve gross motor skills include games like Simon Says, dancing, obstacle courses, drawing with chalk on the ground while sitting or lying on your belly, walking on a balance beam – or drawing a balance beam on the ground with chalk and trying to walk in a straight line along it, playing hopscotch or Twister, playing with balls – kicking a ball, throwing a ball at a target, playing catch, and playing on monkey bars (which are great for arm and core strength, coordinating, and motor planning.)

What is a sensory diet?

A Sensory Diet is a plan full of individualized sensory activities which are tailored to your child so they receive the specific sensory input they need. The idea is to get the body and brain into a “just right” state of arousal. Sensory diets include the use of activities at specified frequency throughout the day, which encourages participation in daily tasks. Intensity of various activities depends on the child and how much input their body needs. The activities need to be fun and motivating, so the child doesn’t refuse but instead feels HAPPY and CONFIDENT.

When establishing a sensory diet, consider taking notes. Initially there will be some trial and error, and the notes will help you identify areas for improvement. Note your child’s regulation throughout the day, and observe whether they are sleepy by lunchtime, or over-aroused after sensory diet activities. Also, remember that every day is different. Children can be affected by sleep, environment, time of day, and a million other factors. All of those things may cause a variance in your child’s sensory system, and accordingly, in their response to what seemed to be a successful sensory diet. Expect that you will need to frequently adjust the sensory diet for it to be effective.

What sensory products are good for adults?

Although we often focus on children when talking about sensory processing issues, there are many adults that are on the autism spectrum or with other forms of neurodiversity that will benefit from sensory products, and besides – you’re never too old to play with toys! Tools that help a person to achieve a state of calm relaxation are invaluable, at any age. Additionally, although many of the products on this site may be considered “autism toys,” even neurotypical adults can benefit from their use. When choosing a sensory product/toy/game for yourself, the key is to understand your own triggers and stressors, and to implement helpful activities before the point of stress.

You can look for either whole body sensory products or smaller, more portable tools. Whole body sensory products such as compression clothing, deep touch pressure sensory products like weighted blankets, lap pads or vests, and bean bag chairs can all help enhance a sense of calm. Sensory brushing using soft surgical brushes to stimulate the skin can also be calming, as can swinging and rocking, as in a hammock or compression swing.

For smaller, portable sensory tools, you may want to consider sensory balls, which can be used for massage and also for fidgeting. In fact, fidgeting has gotten a great deal of attention lately, and we have a vast collection of fidget items for everyone’s needs. If you are working on your fine motor skills, look for fidget toys that require dexterity and finger movements, like pop bubble fidget toys, or those that have strength components, like Play-doh or putty. In addition to fidget toys, if you have a sound sensitivity, you may want to consider noise-canceling headphones or a white noise machine. Also, coloring books can be relaxing and fun…and for children, coloring will help develop and improve their fine motor skills.

If you tend to feel overstimulated in your home, consider small changes you can make to assist with that, that will improve the sound, look, and smell of your environment. Consider having soft items in the kitchen and on the table to minimize the banging sounds from dishes and silverware. Use calming colors in your décor, and lower wattage light bulbs to help decrease visual distractions and help with concentration. Improve the smells in your house with things like essential oils, candles, and lotions.

Ultimately, as an adult you know yourself well enough to have a sense of the type of activities that will be calming for you. Give yourself permission to use those activities or products as tools to help improve your quality of life. You have the right to be comfortable and feel safe in your  environment.

What are the benefits of sleeping with a weighted blanket?

Deep pressure, or deep touch pressure, is believed to provide a calming effect to the nervous system. Most people have felt deep touch pressure in the form of a hug or massage – and who doesn’t enjoy that?! When researching weighted blankets, you’ll often see references to deep touch pressure (DTP), which is why many people find them relaxing.
Weighted blankets may decrease tossing and turning, may help with restless leg syndrome, and provide a sensation for children and adults similar to the swaddling of an infant. The comfort from the deep touch pressure can be very relaxing, and this alone may assist with sleep. There is also some evidence that weighted blankets may increase serotonin levels (one of our feel good chemicals in our brain), which would help decrease anxiety.

When considering a weighted blanket, be sure to consider the weight of the blanket itself, as they may be counterproductive and increase anxiety if they are too heavy.

What are the benefits of fidget toys?

We all know that fidget toys are fun to play with and help all of us dispel a bit of nervous energy, but more than that - they are also an excellent tool. Fidgets can increase focus by giving the hands or body something to do, thereby allowing the brain to focus on the task at hand. They can also help reduce anxiety by giving anxious movements (like nail biting) an outlet, which helps with self-regulation and increased attention. Also, the repetitive movements typically associated with fidget toys can help to relieve stress by distracting from overstimulating environments.

For a fidget to be useful and helpful in addressing sensory challenges, it is important to keep in mind that not all fidgets are suitable for all situations. To choose the right one, you should consider several things. First, where will the fidget be used? Certain settings like classrooms or office meetings require a toy that is silent. Second, is it safe/sanitary? Many fidget toys contain material that can leak out. This is an important consideration, especially if you are buying a fidget for a small child, because in addition to making a mess, the child could potentially ingest the leaking material. Third, keep in mind that texture matters, as this can be an issue for people with sensory challenges. In choosing a fidget toy, it is important to make sure the texture does not disturb the person that will use it. Some people prefer soft fabrics, while others will opt for something they can pull or squeeze on. Try to identify these preferences prior to purchasing a fidget toy. Finally, make sure the fidget itself is not a distraction. It is important that the fidget does not cause the user to zone out, since the goal is to help with focus! After considering the above, you can check out the wide variety of fidgets available on our site. Whether it is a stretch fidget, a kush ball, or a hedgehog ring, there's a perfect fidget toy out there for everyone!