The Five Sensory Senses and Anxiety

Continued from Understanding Anxiety – The Sensory Perspective. Proprioception and Vestibular 


Tactile or touch, it the ability to experience and identify, sensations against the body and skin. Sometimes tactile deficits can overlap with proprioception deficits.
Tactile can be anything from soft touch, to hard pinching and crushing sensation, against the body.

Children who are sensitive to touch sensations and can be easily overwhelmed by, and fearful of, ordinary daily experiences and activities.

The sensory system is most noticeable by observing behavioural human responses. Someone who records low on the sensory scale, will avoid the stimulation by acting out uncharacteristic, or in an irritated manner, due to the increased anxiety inherently felt. Tactile sensory stimulation can be light touched, such as a feather stroking gently against the skin to the opposite and needing deep pressure massage.

Often, with tactile deficits, the person needs either tighter clothing, to enable the peripheral nervous system to understand where their body is, or they may need looser clothing, to reduce the anxiety felt, from tight items.

People will either react aggressively, or look scared, anxious or in pain.

How to help
Reassure the person you know they don’t like touch.
If touch is necessary, inform the person beforehand and use deep pressure touch
Be aware of our own input and any environmental stimuli.
Remember it could be something that seems insignificant to us.

USE MOVEMENT (proprioception)
Chewy tubes can have a powerful effect for oral tactile seeking behaviours.
It’s all about the way in which one’s nervous system interprets touch sensations and stimulation. I suspect you too would react with a “fight back” or “flee” response if any of the above listed items to YOU felt like sandpaper rubbing against your skin or 10 spiders crawling up your arm that you can’t get off. This is the lived experiences for someone who has an impaired sensory system.

Auditory and sound

Sound is often overlooked for people with autism and learning disability, yet this sense is usually the one that is overwhelmed the most, along with visual. A sensory impairment in sound can be due to the environment being too loud and distracting, even the hum of the fridge can drive a sensory audio sensitive into a frenzy of anxiety. Some people wear earphones to help block out sound, sound therapy is most beneficial for someone with a prominent auditory impairment.

Hypersensitive (avoiding)
Hands over ears
Sleeping problems
Flee noisy situations at all costs
Responds negatively to unexpected or loud noises.
Unable to concentrate, sit still
Makes repetitive sounds to block out surrounding sounds

Sometimes a small sound proof room or a dark room can be extremely calming for the overstimulated child. If neither option is available, consider a corner that can be used as a cave that can be covered with dark blankets to give the effect of a closed off space. This helps the over stimulated child some down time way from the bombarding stimulation around them and enable them to manage self-control.

Hypo sensitive (seeking)
Activity with movement (proprioception)
Use ear plugs
Facilitate the person to leave a noisy environment to find a quiet space.


Olfactory smell

Sensory deficits with smell and taste can be isolated, (singular) or they go hand in hand. Thus, someone who has a poor sense of smell, will also have a muted sense of taste.

Someone with poor sense of smell may be drawn to strong scent, including offensive scents.

Someone who has an over active sense of smell, will be offended and irritated by this. Some perfumes can impact on the therapist/client engagement affecting recovery.

Offer a variety of tastes, texture and smells to explore before meal times, bearing in mind that these need to be powerful i.e. grapefruit, olives, lemon.
It is important that these are changed on a regular basis to ensure a variety and to ensure the maximum effect.

Hyposensitive (seek)
Smell self, people and objects
Smear faeces
Seeks strong odours
Pica (eats anything even the inedible)
Mouths and licks objects


Taste can sometimes be under responsive due to the person preferring spicy, sweet or bland flavours. Smell and taste can both have a direct impact on the autistic person. Some people seek out and eat dangerous substances to enable them to TASTE something.

The sense of smell is designed to indicate if something is safe to consume. When this is impaired, the person eating faeces’ or any other harmful substance is consuming the substance, to EXPERIENCE FLAVOUR. This is seeking sensory behaviour.

Hypersensitive (avoid)
Sensitive to smells can be over arousing
Memories are triggered by smells
Prefer bland food
Will use tip of tongue to taste
May gag easily
Dislikes brushing teeth

Think about perfumes and body smells
Always pre-warn the person what is coming next
Always take it slow never force stimulation


Visual impairment is also a critical sensory system for the person with autism or brain injury. The visual sense can be overwhelmed by the bright lights in a room, or even the wallpaper on the lounge wall can have a stimulating and excitation effect on the visually sensory impaired.

Hyposensitive (seek)
May be fascinated by strips/patterns
Is attracted to light
Looks intensely at objects & people
Likes playing in water
Likes moving parts (wheels)

People that flick their hands in front of their eyes or rock back and forth are seeking stimulation. This is called stimming, where the person repeatedly waves a hand in front of their eyes or clicks their fingers consistently, are seeking visual stimulation.

Some children want to rip up paper and flick it into the air or become fascinated or stare into space.

Bright lights, flashing hand balls, pictures with detail and colour all attract the seeking sensitive child.

Hypersensitive (avoids)
Sensitive to lights i.e. bright fluorescents & flashing lights
Red & bright yellow can be overwhelming
Eye contact may be painful
Speed of things can appear larger & more frightening
Flicking fingers or objects in front of their eyes
Hesitates or refuses to go up & down stairs

Things to try;
Soft lighting i.e. lamps (avoid florescent lights)
Use soft colours
Do not force eye contact
Understand that a sensory need is a physiological need!!!! Our brain needs it so we can function, the same way a diabetic needs insulin.

Before we expect a person to do a functional task, we need to give them a sensory “fix”.

Be guided by what a person can tolerate, be aware when they are over/under aroused. The just right challenge.

We offer people a sensory fix throughout the day as you do with a nutritional diet to enable a consistent calm and alert state.

People will gravitate to activities that give them what stimulation they need in order to feel as calm and orientated as possible.

When one sensory system is out of sync it is almost certain that others will be too.
Things to help sensory processing deficits

TheraBand – for proprioception and to stimulate the muscles
Peanut ball or trampoline for vestibular stimulation
Weighted blanket
Pressure vests
Weighted or heavy clothing
Reducing stimulation from environment
Feathers and other soft materials for tactile stimulation
Chewing tubes for oral stimulation and proprioception
Activities at home to support proprioception
Carry heavy loads
Pulling or dragging a heavy bag
Smells or favourite scents on clothing


Activities in the environment
Carrying items during shopping trips
Trampoline, hopping games.
Weighted back pack for walks

Any heavy carrying item will help

2 thoughts on “The Five Sensory Senses and Anxiety

    1. Thank you Chris. Our sensory body is often overlooked in this fast paced world we all line in and can help us understand why we behave and react to certain stimulus as opposed to being judged x


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