Sensory behaviour

Sensory behaviours, their impact and the sensory diet

Observable sensory behaviours

Increased reactions to sensations

Decreased reactions to sensations

Is easily distracted by background sounds

Overreacts to sounds

Has unpredictable reactions to sounds

Holds hands over ears to block noise

Screams or cries at sounds in the environment

Responds physically as if sound is a threat

Does not respond to name being spoken

Seems oblivious to sounds of surrounding activities

Creates constant sounds as if to stimulate self

Does not respond to any kind of sound (check hearing)

Is disturbed by bright lighting or avoids sunlight

Covers part of visual field- puts hand over part of the page of a book

Responds physically to appearance of certain objects or colours

Is unaware of the presence of other people

Is unable to locate desired objects, people

Does not pay attention to visual prompts

Does not like to be touched

Avoids tasks with a strong tactile element (clay, water play, paint, food preparation)

Complains about discomfort of clothing, refuses to wear certain clothes

Responds negatively to textures in food, toys, Furniture

Does not seem to notice touch of others

Frequently puts things into mouth

Has a high pain threshold, is unaware of danger because of low response to pain

Balance and movement
Seems to tire easily when engaged in movement activities

Is generally slow to move, or usually lethargic

Takes a long time to respond to directions to move

Seems to need constant movement

Rocks, jumps

Smell and taste
Eats a limited variety of food

Gags, refuses food

Spits out foods, medications

Overreacts to smells in environment

Avoids places or people with strong odours

Licks objects in the environment

Chews on objects inappropriately

May ingest dangerous substances despite

their unpleasant taste

Sniffs objects and people in unusual ways

Source: Alberta Learning, Teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Alberta, Canada. 2003.

Consider the following to reduce the impact of sensory factors



Are there fans, loudspeakers, fire alarms, several people talking at once, air conditioners, bells, dogs barking, or scraping?

What are the general sound level and the predictability and repetitiveness of sounds?

What can be done to minimise the negative effect these stimuli may have on the student with ASD in the class?

What is the time typically required by the student to process auditory information and/or to shift attention between auditory stimuli?



Are there distracters, such as light, movement, reflection, or background patterns, that affect the student’s ability to attend to the learning activity?

What is the eye level of the student, the position of the teacher in relation to the student, and the distracters that may interfere with attention?

How much time is required to shift visual attention?

What effort is given to reducing the effects of aversive visual stimuli, so that the management of the student’s behaviour is facilitated, and his ability to learn is enhanced?



Are there textures that seem to be abrasive?

Are temperatures appropriate to minimise negative effect on the student?

Does the student demonstrate a need to explore through touch, and yet avoid being touched?

What is the level of ability or defensiveness in the use of certain objects intended to support instruction?



How is the student’s need to move and exercise accommodated?

What are the individual’s reactions to movement?

How can the student’s program incorporate needed movement without unduly jeopardising the attention and learning of other students in the class?


Gustatory and olfactory:

What are the student’s preferences in taste and smell with foods and other materials?

How are the student’s responses to the smell of materials incorporated into decisions made about activities?

What is the appropriate behaviour, as affected by these smell preferences, suitable to teach for snack or mealtimes?

Sensory diet (sensory experience plan) 

It is an action plan to give a child the sensory experience they may need. Suitable sensory experience provided in supportive settings and predictable routines can help children regulate emotions, prevent overstimulation, and become calm. For children who tend to be under-stimulated, regular sensory stimulation may energise them and make them alert.

Some guiding principles:

  • The child should like the sensory experience; it should not be distressing for the child.
  • It should combine a variety of experiences.
  • It should be easily accessible to the child at school and home.
  • At least in the early stages of introducing the sensory experience, the child should be monitored and supported.
  • The sensory experience plan should be regularly reviewed, and if something isn’t working, it should be stopped or replaced.

Types of sensory experiences


  • Playing with beans or pebbles
  • Playing with slime, playdough, or clay
  • Colouring with hands
  • walking bare feet on a rough surface
  • squeezing a rough softball
  • Making sandcastles
  • holding a vibrating toy in hands
  • massage

Movement and proprioception

  • Jumping running spinning
  • Swinging
  • Dancing
  • hula hoop
  • Skipping rope
  • Playing catch a ball
  • pushing a wheelbarrow
  • Lying under cushions


  • Blowing a cotton ball
  • eating crunchy food
  • making animal sounds
  • blowing up balloons
  • puffing cheeks with air
  • painting while holding the brush in the mouth
  • licking a sticky sauce off lips


  • matching games
  • pattern activity
  • puzzles
  • colourful bubbles


  • scented oils
  • perfumes
  • scented sticks


  • sing songs
  • play musical instruments
  • noise blocking earmuffs
  • listen to calming music

Some examples of the sensory experience plan

#1: A 7-year-old boy with autism and hyperactivity

Starting at a convenient time in the morning, plan for giving the child the experience of one of the following activities for 10 to 30 minutes, one every two hours or so:

  1. jumping on the trampoline or skipping rope
  2. blowing up balloons
  3. lying down under a weighted blanket
  4. eating some crunchy carrots
  5. listening to calming music while watching colourful bubbles in the room with incense sticks.

#2: A four-year-old girl who is under stimulated:

Starting at a convenient time in the morning, plan for giving the child the experience of one of the following activities for 10 to 30 minutes, every two hours or so:

  • a massage of her arms and legs with pressure
  • completing a puzzle
  • going on a swing or a merry go round
  • rolling on her tummy
  • using a vibrating toothbrush
  • lying down under a weighted blanket


#3: a 13-year-old boy with anxiety, poor emotional regulation and difficult behaviour

Starting at a convenient time in the morning, plan for giving the child the experience of one of the following activities for 10 to 30 minutes, one every two hours or so:

  • Using noise reducing earmuffs or noise cancelling earphones when doing drawing or any other preferred activity
  • Playing catching a ball or juggling some balls for 10 minutes
  • running for 20 minutes
  • Skip rope for 10 minutes
  • breathing exercises for 10 minutes
  • yoga for 15 minutes