Self-Regulation and Sensory? What is the Link? What can Help?

Self regulation involves monitoring and controlling one’s own feelings, emotions and behavior. It necessitates the ability to block out irrelevant stimuli, control impulses and persist in tasks. Sensory processing is foundational. It is the ability to take in cues from within our body and from the environment; process them accurately and prioritize what to focus on in order to perform daily activities.
Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD) and Its Effects on Self Regulation
Sensory modulation disorder (SMD) refers to difficulty regulating responses to sensory stimulation. This is due to an underlying sensory processing disorder. Three subtypes have been proposed: sensory over-responsive, in which the child responds too much, for too long, or shows a strong response to stimuli of weak intensity; sensory under-responsive, in which the child responds too little, or needs extremely strong stimulation to become aware of the stimulus; and sensory seeking/craving, where the child responds with intense searching for more or stronger stimulation (Miller, Nielsen, Schoen, & Brett-Green, 2009).

The ability to regulate and control your feelings, emotions and behaviors as well as your ability to attend and focus are often related to difficulties modulating sensory information. This link is both behaviorally and physiologically.

When a child is well regulated, he adapts to changes in the environment, has a level of arousal and attention appropriate to the task, blocks out irrelevant information, attends to relevant information, and responds appropriately in direct proportion to the input. Behaviorally, sensory modulation thus refers to the observable ability of a child to produce “responses that match the demands and expectations of the environment” (Lane, 2002).

Intervention to Aid Sensory Modulation and Self Regulation
Help for a child with an SMD involves several considerations and types of intervention. Engineering the environment is an easy start. For the over-responsive child and sensory seeking/craving, you want  to decrease clutter and minimize noise and other distractions can promote attention to salient components within the physical setting and activity (Murray-Slutsky & Paris, 2005, 2014), decrease a child’s stress and anxiety and promote better internal sensory modulation and self regulation.

For all children with SMD, providing structure to the physical space and the tasks such as well-defined areas for eating, homework, and play is an important first step to aiding sensory modulation and self regulation. Some may also need a quiet space such as the cuddle swing or a tent for their bed.
A next step in aiding the child is inclusion of physical activities and opportunities to meet the sensory needs. Proprioceptive, tactile and vestibular inputs have been identified as helping aid the child in the development of self regulation, whether in treatment, included in sensory diets or simply used at school or home. Repetitive, regular-paced rhythmic activities and songs are organizing activities.

Proprioceptive activities (activities that are resistive in nature and work the muscles) are calming and organizing and include climbing activities:
carrying or pushing heavy objects
playground equipment
resistive activities
rope ladder
cargo net
wall climbing
climbing through a resistive tunnel

Vestibular activities (activities that incorporate movement of changes in head positions) can be either arousing or calming.
Calming vestibular include any slow, repetitive movements:
slow rocking in a chair
swinging in a cuddle swing
slow rolling in a barrel
sitting on a ball chair

Arousing vestibular activities (activities that are faster but should be in straight lines or linear vs rotary)should also be organizing and include:
rhythmic, organized jumping on a trampoline or bounce pad
swinging on a Trapeze bar. Hanging upside down or doing flips from the bar.
scooter board activities
bouncing on a ball or Hippoty hop

Further steps might include sensory diets. These activities must be chosen to meet the needs of the individual. The activity should help a person be more relaxed, content, focused, able to participate in activities, tolerate change in the environment and in his/her schedule and be ready to learn and assimilate new information.


Carolyn Murray-Slutsky, MS OTR, C/NDT
Betty Paris, PT, M.Ed., C/NDT

* More specific information can be found in the following books by these authors:

Autism Interventions – Exploring the Spectrum of Autism, 2nd Ed.

Is It Sensory or Is It Behavior?


Lane, S. J. (2002). Sensory Modulation. In A. C. Bundy, S. J. Lane, & E. A. Murray (Eds.), Sensory Integration Theory and Practice (Vol. 2nd, pp. 101-122). Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company. (Reprinted from: IN FILE).
Miller, L. J., Nielsen, D. M., Schoen, S. A., & Brett-Green, B. (2009). Perspectives on sensory processing disorder: a call for translational research. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 3(22), 1-12.
Murray-Slutsky, C., & Paris, B. (2005). Is it Sensory or is it Behavior? Austin, Texas: Hammill Institute on Disabilities.
Murray-Slutsky, C., & Paris, B. (2014). Autism Interventions;  Exploring the Spectrum of Autism (2nd). Austin, Texas: Hammill Institute on Disabilities.