My teenager was just diagnosed with sensory issues. Is it too late to mitigate them?
As children get older, even unaddressed sensory issues may lessen at least a bit, but there are still many teenagers and adults with sensory processing disorder. However, it’s never too late to address — and take control over — sensory issues. Developing the ability to know what they need to make themselves comfortable in their bodies, and how to get it, empowers teenagers. Just remember that teenagers hate to be different, to stand out from their peers in “weird” ways, so you need to help your teen find unobtrusive, socially appropriate, solutions to sensory issues.
Examples of sensory diet activities for teenagers (and adults)
(We’ll refer to “your teenager” but basically, adults are teenagers with better-developed self-control, so the same activities will work for adults as well.)
– Heavy work
Your teenager can shovel snow or lift weights (or do other exercise) for heavy work input.
Getting your teen moving regularly is really important. Sports, yoga, and exercise are all good options. Take advantage of individual sports (such as swimming) and team sports (pretty much everything else!), as well as other scheduled activities such as classes (yoga? martial arts?) and clubs (hiking? biking?). Help your teenager maintain regular attendance, ideally a few times a week.
– Pushing and pulling
Other ways to get heavy work activities around and outside the home include mowing the lawn (using a manual mower, not a ride-on), raking leaves, pushing or pulling heavy objects, doing vacuuming and other chores, which also gives them a sense of responsibility and maturity. Suggest chores that meet their sensory needs. For example, washing dishes provides tactile input; doing laundry and vacuuming is heavy work. As with school-age children, don’t forget to praise and thank them for the genuine help they are providing.
Just going to school wearing a heavy knapsack gives proprioceptive input.
– Experiencing reassuring deep pressure
Your teenager might find wearing weighted or tight (compression) clothes comforting. Options for compression clothing include shirts, undershirts, tank tops or camisoles, leggings, and shorts, especially lycra biking shorts. Worn as a bottom layer under other clothing, nobody will know she’s wearing anything different than her peers. He can also sleep under a heavy or weighted blanket, use compression bedsheets, or use a weighted lap pad while sitting.
Tip: you can buy a weighted vest from a therapy catalog, or simply put light weights in the pockets of a regular vest (fishing and athletic vests usually have plenty of pockets).
– Swinging and spinning
You’re never too old to swing in a hammock, spin in an office chair, or use playground swings.
– Getting upside down
Hang upside down; do yoga inversions; use an inversion table; do cartwheels; swim (with flip turns and somersaults).
Do jumping jacks. Exercise. Dance. There are so many forms of dance — folk, hip hop, classical, jazz, belly; your teenager should be able to find a type that interests him.
– Engaging in creative hobbies
Teenagers should use their hands to create. They can paint, sculpt (or use a potter’s wheel), sew, weave, crochet or knit. They can scrapbook (this entails a lot of cutting and pasting and adding different textures to make the pages interesting). They can learn woodwork (bonus input comes from using sandpaper to smooth the wood). If they’re interested, there are always art classes, pottery classes, etc. available.
– Fiddling with fidgets
Your teen might want to carry small pocket objects to fidget with. Fidgets come in a variety of forms so let your teen make the choice. A squeeze ball, stress ball, putty, marbles, different textured rocks, bracelets, and erasers are all easily available, unobtrusive options.
– Wearing compression clothing
Compression or tight-fitting clothing clothing provides tactile input as well as subtle deep pressure.
NOTE: For teens who are hypersensitive to tactile input, try seamless socks and underwear, and very soft clothing. You can find many retailers online who sell clothing appropriate for sensory people.
– Using chewable objects
Chewies come in a variety of forms including “jewelry,” pencil toppers, and many other options. Again, it’s best to let your teen make the choice; he may not be comfortable with the idea at all.
Cooking and baking allows the opportunity to touch different textured ingredients. Your teenager is old enough to make dinner once a week, to bake (bonus: baking provides heavy hand work as well as tactile input) or pack his own lunch. Again, the added responsibility empowers teenagers and again, don’t forget to thank them
– Eating and drinking
Encourage your teenager to experiment with different flavors, textures, and temperatures. Chewing gum works too.
Visual activities and modifications
Your teenager may enjoy looking at “coffee table” art books in areas that interest him. Perhaps tattoo art, graffiti, or street art would capture her attention. Making art, whether in art classes or as an individual hobby, provides tactile as well as visual input.
Help your teenager decorate, paint, or modify his room to provide either an alerting or calming space, depending on his sensory needs.
Many of these are the same as, or similar to, activities for toddlers and young school-age children.
– Listening to music
As with younger children, music can be either calming and focusing, or energizing, so you should encourage your teenager to create a music ‘library’ available for different occasions. You may have very different musical preferences but luckily, your teenager is used to wearing earbuds!
– Playing music
Playing in a band with friends and taking music lessons are good options.
– Listening to sounds
Create agreeable sounds. A white noise machine often has settings for different types of pleasant instrumental music and natural sounds, such as rainfall, ocean waves, birdsongs, etc., or you can find them online. A tabletop rocks and water fountain, or an aquarium, is calming both to listen to and look at.
– Removing sounds
If your teenager is being bombarded with auditory stimulation at home, she can retreat to a quiet, dimly-lit room, or put on a white noise machine to block out sounds. If you’re out, he can use sound-canceling headphones.
– The Listening Program™
Your teenager’s OT can devise a plan of daily sessions for The Listening Program™, a music-based therapy program, which she can follow on her own. We discussed this program in more detail here.
– Smelling and experimenting with using scented products
Encourage your teenager to try different lotions, creams, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, and/or perfumes.
– Using essential oils
Your teenager might really enjoy experimenting with aromatherapy to find the essential oils that make her feel calm and relaxed, or energized and awake (some examples include peppermint or basil to improve concentration and lavender or cedarwood to promote relaxation).
As with the earlier posts aimed at younger children, these are just a few ideas for activities and adaptations. You can find more ideas and information about calming
therapeutic activities for the different senses here.
In the next post, we will discuss ways to modify and fine-tune the activities and routines in order to balance your child’s sensory diet.
How old is your sensory child and how have his or her needs changed over the years? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what other topics you would like to discuss or hear more about.
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I look forward to hearing from you!