|SENSORY INPUT AND THE MOUTH:
PARTNERS AT MEALTIME
learn everything through our senses. This includes
sensory information from seeing, hearing, movement,
touch, pressure, taste, temperature, and smell. When our
senses don't work in a normal way, learning becomes more
Normal sensory abilities are a combination of
- the ability of the sensory organs (eyes, ears,
nose, skin, etc.) to receive sensory information,
what we call acuity.
- the ability of the brain to control the total
amount of information that is handled at one
- the ability of the brain to interpret or perceive
the sensory message.
Common Sensory Problems of the Mouth and Body
- The child has one or more sensory organs that do
not receive sensory information adequately.
Blindness or visual impairment makes it
difficult for the child to anticipate when
the feeder is giving the food. It also is
harder to feed yourself if you are blind.
Hearing impairment makes it more difficult
for the feeder to use normal verbal cues to
communicate with the child during the meal.
When children feed themselves, it is not easy
to talk using hand signs when your hands are
holding a spoon or cup.
- The child hyper-reacts with a stronger response
to a specific sensation than expected.
The sound of the food arriving, or the
smell of food may trigger involuntary
movement of the body or a wide mouth opening
in anticipation of eating.
When the child is hungry and eager to eat,
the tongue may push out of the mouth or the
teeth grind together.
The startle response may become very
strong. If the child startles with food in
the mouth, choking can occur.
Some medications affect the sense of
taste. Taste can seem very strong or
unpleasant. The child may dislike certain
foods or refuse to eat.
- The child hypo-reacts with a weaker response to a
specific sensation than expected.
Low muscle tone in the body or mouth is
often accompanied by a low reaction to
High levels of some seizure medications
can dull the senses, making it very difficult
for a child to respond appropriately to
Some medications specifically reduce the
child's awareness of taste, making all meals
bland and boring. The child may refuse to eat
or show little interest in food.
Some medications reduce the sense of
hunger or cause nausea. The child may refuse
to eat or may eat very little.
- The child responds to sensory information in a
very defensive way.
This usually occurs when the brain does
not discriminate or interpret the sensation
well. The child responds to the sensory
information by either fighting it or trying
to get away from it.
There are often many strong food likes and
dislikes. The sensory information in food
that has a different taste, temperature,
smell, or texture may be rejected. The child
often doesn't like new foods or particular
kinds of food.
If children are unable to get away from
this sensory input (which is perceived as
dangerous), they may block out all awareness
of it. A child who has selected this means of
survival may appear to be deaf, blind, or
- The child has difficulty sorting out sensory
information. The brain and mind react to every
sensation in the room. This can be called sensory
overload because the mind receives so much
information that it can't handle it any more.
This usually occurs when the brain does
not sort or filter out unnecessary
information. Every sensation in the room, and
in the child's body competes for attention.
Just like an electrical circuit or fuse will
blow when it becomes overloaded, individuals
with problems of sensory overload can feel
like they are going to explode.
Children who experience sensory overload
may try to make things more organized or make
them better by using self-stimulatory
behaviors. Most of these behaviors, such as
thumb sucking, rocking, flapping the hands,
spinning objects, or hitting the head, are
done with a rhythm. Rhythms help us organize
Poor eye contact is seen in children who
are having difficulty sorting out sensory
information. If children don't look at you,
it might be because they are trying to shut
out visual sensory information that is
confusing or upsetting.
If children are unable to organize this
sensory input, they may block out all
awareness of it. A child who has selected
this means of survival may appear to be deaf,
blind, or very retarded.
Milder degrees of sensory overload can
make it difficult for the child to pay
attention. Everything in the room wants
attention. The child may be described as
hyperactive or distractible.
Evans Morris, Ph.D.
1124 Roberts Mountain Road
Faber, Virginia 22938
This paper is a working
draft and multiple copies may not be reproduced
without prior written permission of the author
© Suzanne Evans Morris, 1997 All Rights Reserved