What is Sensory Modulation?

Sensory modulation is the ability to respond appropriately to sensory information and remain at an appropriate level of alertness for activities.
We make sense of sensory information that we receive from the environment and our own body in order to learn and behave in appropriate ways. Sensory modulation is how we regulate this sensory input in order to prevent us from over or under reacting to sensations. Difficulties with sensory modulation can result in being under-responsive (decreased response) or over-responsive (increased response and alert levels).

What happens if we are over or under responsive?

The degree of over or under responsivity can change throughout the day and it is possible to be over and under responsive to different senses or even to the same sense. Different terms for over and under responsivity include, hyper and hypo reactive or sensory sensitive and sensory under sensitive.

Effects on behaviour

Being over or under responsive to sensory stimuli can affect our level of alertness, basically how calm we are and how ready we are for learning (calm-alert). When alertness levels are high, children may demonstrate impulsive behaviour (shouting out in class) or require movement (rocking/fidgeting in chair) to regulate their system. A heightened level of alertness impacts on a child’s ability to concentrate and can affect behaviour and social skills. Some children with modulation difficulties can develop poor self-esteem and confidence, emotional problems and/or disruptive behaviours.
When children are over responsive to sensory stimuli it can lead to sensory overload. Children may not always be able to tell us clearly how they are feeling during activities so it is important to be vigilant and to observe their behaviours carefully for signs of sensory overload. It is important to observe them both during and after different activities. This is because reactions to sensory stimuli can be delayed and signs of sensory overload can sometimes not be immediately apparent, that is they can occur after an activity has finished.

Signs of sensory overload include:

  • Flushing or pallor (pale appearance) 
  • Perspiring (sweating) 
  • Prolonged and increased respiration (breathing rate) 
  • Agitation 
  • Closing of eyes 
  • Sudden increase or decrease in level of arousal 
  • Changes in muscle tone (too much or too little tension in the muscles) 
  • Nausea (feeling sick)